Why are some elections non-partisan?

Some cities' elections in Michigan are partisan while others are nonpartisan.

Recently, I heard a county commissioner note that their board worked so well together because they were able to set aside partisan differences and focus on what needed to be done for their county. That commissioner added that they thought all county elections should be non-partisan, rather than partisan elections. Unfortunately, for that commissioner, Michigan counties do not have the authority to change the structure of their elections; that would require a change in state law, according to the Michigan Bureau of Elections. However, some elections in Michigan and across the country are non-partisan, for a variety of reasons.

In Michigan, cities have the authority to decide whether elections for offices such as city council or commission and mayor are partisan elections or non-partisan. In non-partisan elections, such as in the City of Lansing, a specified number of candidates advance from the primary and face off in the general election. In Lansing, the top two individuals who receive majority vote in the mayoral race advance from the primary to the general election with no party affiliation stated. Other cities, like Ann Arbor, have partisan elections similar to those for state and federal offices.

Proponents of non-partisan elections argue that at the local level, political parties are irrelevant to providing services. The famous saying for this situation is, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the garbage.” They also suggest that cooperation between officials belonging to different parties is more likely. Politicians in non-partisan offices are in theory more likely to be focused on getting their job done than making the other party look bad, as we often see at the national level.

Non-partisan elections also are more likely to encourage moderate candidates because candidates are more likely to have to seek votes from across the political spectrum. This also leads to elections that are more competitive. For example, in Lansing’s recent mayoral election both candidates in the general election were affiliated with the Democratic Party. However, it was a non-partisan election, which allowed the two to face off in the general election, and forced them to campaign to voters across the spectrum. Non-partisan elections also tend to be more competitive, and are less likely to have candidates running unopposed. Many elected offices in areas that lean heavily to Republican or heavily Democratic are essentially decided in the Primary, with no member of the other party running in the general election. Non-partisan elections allow for competitive campaigns in these seats, giving the voters more options to choose from.

Opponents argue that the absence of party labels confuses voters and that in the absence of party affiliation, unprepared voters often turn to whatever cue is available, which often ends up being the ethnicity of a candidate’s name. Without a doubt, name recognition becomes more important in non-partisan elections. For all else they may bring, party identification does usually give voters some idea of where a candidate stands on certain issues.

Non-partisan elections place more burden on voters to seek information about individual candidates, rather than party platform. While many would view this as a positive, if voters do not do their research, the result is an even less informed electorate, which can lead to lower voter participation.

Across the county, many municipalities use non-partisan voting. According to the National League of Cities, only seven of the 30 largest cities in the United States use partisan elections to elect their local officials. The Nebraska State Senate, the state’s only legislative chamber, is technically non-partisan because there are no formal party groups within the Senate. However, almost all members are affiliated with the Democratic or Republican Party and both parties explicitly endorse candidates.

In Michigan, as mentioned, cities have the authority to implement non-partisan elections for local offices, but units of government, such as counties, do not. It would require changes to state law to allow counties to move to non-partisan elections or to consider non-partisan elections statewide. As a voter, what do you think? How would non-partisan elections affect elections where you live?

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs that are available to be presented in your county. Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information. 

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