Most voters, and probably you, too, recognize America’s two-party political system for what it is: a trap.
Red and blue colored ties play good-cop-bad-cop on television for three years at a time while nothing gets done. During the fourth year, they make campaign stops where they sling blame for why nothing got done during the previous three.
Voters in a small town of just under 17 thousand think they may have found have a way out — at least within their city limits. And it could be accomplished with a simple referendum.
A Question Answered: Do We Want Partisanship in Local Politics?
On March 20, voters in the city of Washington, Illinois will weigh in on a ballot measure that would strip partisanship from city elections beginning in 2019.
Washington, which is located in Tazewell County, is the only city in that county to retain partisan municipal elections. Residents of the municipality are to thank for the referendum vote — a successful petition campaign saw the measure over the finish line and onto the ballot.
One of the activists credited with this milestone is Lilija Stevens, who gathered 280 more signatures than she needed to get the referendum onto the ballot. She was clear about her motivations, saying this was “a perfect storm of events and people coming together … people who didn’t know each other beforehand. We’re not funded by a political party, and people from more than one party are involved.”
Just getting this measure on the ballot represents a victory for activists who have argued for years that voters identify more with issues as they apply to the local community more than they identify with stock belief systems from national political organizations.
Dissenters and Fallout
Presently, municipal positions like city clerk and city treasurer in the city of Washington, IL, are based on partisan elections. The city council’s nine members are also elected in partisan elections. All nine are, at the present time, Republicans.
According to the Tazewell County Clerk, no Democrat has so much as appeared on a city ballot in about 12 years.
Mayor Gary Manier has chosen to go on record as being against the change, claiming the system has “worked well enough” for decades and that the council’s decisions are not motivated by partisan politics.
As for the immediate changes and fallout from this proposed change? The city would no longer need to hold primaries. Tazewell County’s expenses for the 2017 primary election came in at a relatively svelte $14,621, but that’s still taxpayer money that could be spent to better effect elsewhere.
Instead of primaries, positions with five or more candidates would be winnowed via a runoff vote.
Nearby Pana, Illinois, successfully made this change in 2000. Ken Mueller, who led that petition campaign, says they, “haven’t had any problems at all since making the switch,” but more than that, that the community is now, “…getting different groups of people running for office now and, in my opinion, the more people who get involved in a community, the better.”
You have probably detected what is either the biggest flaw or the greatest triumph of campaigns like these in Washington and Pana. It’s simply this: voters will have to be relied upon to look past labels and lapel pins and appraise individual ideas on their merits.
“Scaling up” this idea to the national level, where Republican® and Democratic® brand politics hold sway from the comfort of walled gardens, feels absolutely vital as well as absolutely impossible. Can we wean the American electorate off the comfort of labels, beginning with community and city politics?
It’s certainly possible. Here’s why:
A Great Pivot to Local Politics?
Let’s look at what’s happened in the wake of the FCC’s dismantling of net neutrality and the GOP’s turning away from the Obama-era climate agreement:
- Cities like Lafayette, LA, and Concord, MA, have realized dramatic cost savings by investing in city-owned fiber-optic networks. Doing so sidesteps the federal-level dismantling of net neutrality — and the pointlessly partisan divide it has inspired — and turns local internet, effectively, into a public utility.
- After President Trump signaled his intention to exit the Paris Climate Agreement, “blue” cities like Austin and Milwaukee have begun putting their own similar industrial guidelines in place to, as with the previous example, fill the leadership vacuum currently occupied by partisan distraction and fake news.
It is not an understatement to say America is witnessing the death of the federal government, as we have known it, under Trump and the Republican Party. In its place will likely be something that pretends at accountability without quite delivering it.
That’s a bleak state of affairs, and it's going to take a long time to fix, but it doesn’t have to be exclusively discouraging. As the citizens of Washington, Lafayette, Concord, Austin, and Milwaukee are demonstrating, we can rebuild our politics, one critical issue at a time, if we all recommit ourselves to local politics and civic engagement.
Right now, of the top five most-populous cities in the country, three hold nonpartisan public elections. Bringing this idea to more American cities means trusting voters with ownership of issues and ideas rather than with a paltry “stake” in a political institution, like the GOP and the DNC, that increasingly resembles unaccountable corporations.
We have some work to do before this idea hits the national stage, but it’s good to see it’s well underway in our cities.