Friday, August 8, 2008

Nonpartisan Elections in The OC (and elsewhere)

I thought that I has penned my last concerning nonpartisan local elections years ago. Alas, it was not to be. The reason for dredging the matter up again is that shifting voting patterns and growing frustrations over having to choose one primary ballot over the other have prompted calls for county commissioners to be elected on a nonpartisan basis in some of the “regular” counties in the area.

This is a bandwagon on which I have been for years (in the immortal words of Bruce Willis’ John McClane, “Welcome to the party, pal.”). What follows is a reposting of comments I made over at Jmac’s in response to his take on the issue:

We were able to institute nonpartisan elections for the Athens-Clarke County Commission due to the fact that we have a unified (or "consolidated") city-county government.

I wrote three articles on the issue of nonpartisan elections back in 2003-2004 for Athens Weekly News, in which I detailed the lengthy history of the idea in Clarke County and demolished some of the hysterical arguments against changing from partisan to nonpartisan elections for the Commission (contrary to what some would have had you believe, it was not a recent plot devised by the evil GOP). Also, with all due humility, I wiped up the floor with the Democrat Party and Green Party representatives at a forum concerning nonpartisan elections held at Athens Regional Library prior to the local referendum (I was in favor of nonpartisan elections and the other two were not).

Contrary to what many believe, the Constitution is silent on the matter of partisan versus nonpartisan elections for county commissioners. Instead, the state’s code governs; says O.C.G.A. 21-2-139(a), in part:

"Notwithstanding any other provisions of this chapter to the contrary, the General Assembly may provide by local Act for the election in nonpartisan elections of candidates to fill county judicial offices, offices of local school boards, and offices of consolidated governments which are filled by the vote of the electors of said county or political subdivision."

The presumption is that, since county governments generally are not specified in the code section, they must hold partisan elections for their offices by default. Thus, for a regular county government, such as that in Oconee County, to change to nonpartisan elections, the state’s code would have to be changed to allow for county governments generally to pursue the change through local legislation in the General Assembly.

Of particular relevance to the current discussion are the final few paragraphs from the Banner-Herald’s write-up of the forum. Unfortunately, Athens Weekly News is defunct and its web site is no more. After their initial appearance it print, the three articles were posted on the web site of the Committee for Nonpartisan Elections, a local group pushing for the referendum's adoption.

For what it is worth, the ACCG included a plank in its legislative agenda for some years calling for the nonpartisan elections of county commissioners, only dropping it after something approaching unanimity among its members could not be attained. As noted by Scott Berry in the Banner-Herald, the GSA has similarly advocated nonpartisan elections for the office of county sheriff.

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