Partisan electioins: baby or bath water? | Guest Column

Sandy Strehlou.  - Contributed photo
Sandy Strehlou.
— image credit: Contributed photo

By Sandy Strehlou

In four weeks, San Juan County voters will choose 21 Charter Review Commissioners to review the County’s charter. They will take stock of the charter government that voters put in place in 2005 and assess its effectiveness. It will not be surprising if they find things that can be improved. Voters will be asked to approve suggested changes in 2012.

I think the future commission and the voters should consider: Why aren’t enough capable people running for office? Why are important races going uncontested?

How can we possibly expect to resolve long-standing issues without enough qualified candidates to choose from on Election Day?

In 2005 the Freeholders asked the voters to approve, among other things, a change to non-partisan elections for County Council. We agreed, and this is where we threw the baby out with the bathwater.

Since adopting non-partisan elections, we have seen a decline in the number of candidates on the ballot, with critical elected offices going uncontested and fewer qualified candidates to choose from.

At first glance, taking “party politics” out of local elections seemed like a reasonable decision. What we didn’t anticipate was that partisan elections had helped ensure healthy competition for these positions.

Partisan elections motivated the parties to identify, nominate and support candidates for local office. As a result, the voters had more choice and more information about the candidates’ views.

In addition, candidates had support in running their campaigns if they wanted it. In small communities, even modest campaign support can make all the difference to a smart and qualified candidate running for the first time

Another consideration is how party affiliation opens doors in Olympia. For better or worse, elected officials from small counties have far less leverage at the state and national level than their counterparts in large metropolitan counties.

Our county representatives have not traditionally been career politicians with connections in Olympia. Eliminating party affiliation from County Council races only ensures that our representatives will have even less political clout and fewer opportunities to represent San Juan County.

When the State Constitution was ratified in 1887, it created rules for the commission form of county government. This system called for partisan elections for all but judicial elections. I am not proposing that San Juan County go back to that form of government, but I do believe that when it comes to electing our representatives, the Constitution was right.

Partisan elections provide the voters with more information, more candidates, and more choice, which are all critical to good government.

I hope our Charter Review commission will consider a return to partisan elections when they convene early next year.

— Sandy Strehlou resides in the county's District 1 legislative precinct.


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