Some Wake County mayors are opposing a pair of bills filed in the state House and Senate last month that would introduce party affiliations into municipal elections and move those elections to even-numbered years.
“Most of the mayors I’ve talked to, we’re not in favor of partisanship,” said Holly Springs Mayor Dick Sears, president of the Wake County Mayors Association. “It doesn’t apply to what we do as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see the rationale at all. The bottom line is that we’re fine. They should leave it alone.”
Most races for elected office at the municipal level are conducted on a non-partisan basis, although political parties will sometimes align themselves with candidates depending on their platforms. Similarly, nearly all of North Carolina’s local governments hold their elections in odd-numbered years.
SB 94’s title, “Elections Transparency,” echoes language used to explain similar legislation filed this session that would make races for District and Superior Court judgeships partisan as well. Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed that legislation this month.
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“In discussions with constituents, other elected officials and members of the business community concerning the elections process it has become abundantly clear that the voting public is not always as fully informed about the candidates as they could be,” Sen. Ronald Rabin, a Harnett County Republican and SB 94’s primary sponsor, said in a statement. “This is especially true regarding the candidates’ political beliefs and ideology and often results in voters being disappointed in the way they are represented.”
Both SB 94 and House Bill 64, which deals with election years, are currently in committee. At a March 14 council meeting, Morrisville’s town council directed town staff to draft a resolution opposing the legislation, ideally in time for the next meeting because, Mayor Mark Stohlman said, “you never know how fast things are going to move in the General Assembly.”
“Especially a town the size of Morrisville, we’re running a business,” Stohlman said. “We have employees, a budget and end results people are expecting from us. It’s truly running a business, and there’s little or no time for partisanship.”
The League of Municipalities, the state’s largest advocacy group for municipal governments, addressed a letter to the sponsors of SB 94 late last month expressing its opposition to the bill. The League’s letter states that just eight of North Carolina’s 533 municipalities have chosen to hold partisan local elections.
“SB 94 runs counter to the League’s 2017-18 membership-chosen advocacy goal to ‘support legislation that provides for municipal elections to be determined by the local municipal authority,’ ” the letter reads. “This goal recognizes that local citizens and officials are best suited to determine how a community’s municipal elections are operated. Our members believe it should be up to each locality and its citizens to choose whether municipal elections should take place on a partisan basis.”
Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht called the proposal “a horrible idea.” He said the bills’ combined effect – holding partisan local elections in the midst of hotly contested presidential and congressional races – could goad overloaded voters into ticking a straight party-line ticket without giving their local races the issues-based consideration he said they have traditionally received.
“There are some cities where they don’t like the representation people are electing, and they think by going partisan, people will show up to vote at big elections and vote for the top of the ticket and just go Republican or Democrat straight down,” Weinbrecht said. “That’s often how people get elected.”
Mayors said they’d heard the switch to even-year elections justified in terms of cost savings and hopes for increased turnout associated with higher-profile races. Scott Mooneyham, a spokesman for the League of Municipalities, said that people who vote in local elections tend to do so out of concern for specific issues rather than out of partisan loyalties.
“Polls we’ve done – and other polls, too – have shown that the people of North Carolina have more confidence in local government than in any other level of government,” Mooneyham said. “Maybe people should be asking whether the fact that those elections are held on a non-partisan basis is part of the reason for that.”
Apex Town Council member Gene Schulze said he’d support moving all elections to even-numbered years if it would help local governments save money. He also said he’d likely support SB 94 despite some “mixed feelings.”
“In the spirit of transparency, I would say that any time it makes it easier for the public to get information about a candidate, they’re better off,” he said. “I do want to avoid partisan politics in these kinds of things, but if I had to lean one way, let’s lean in the way of giving the public as much information as we can.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan