Honolulu's nonpartisan elections are failing us
IN 1992, the Honolulu City Charter was changed to require that the elections for mayor and City Council be conducted on a nonpartisan basis starting in 1994. This meant that the election ballot would not indicate the political party of the candidates. Before this, most candidates ran with a party affiliation. The proposition on the ballot in 1992 apparently appealed to voters seeking greater openness and fairness in city government. Unfortunately, It has created more problems than it solved. Many active political party members understood this to mean that they should not be involved in local elections; the resulting decrease in the involvement of political parties has turned out to be a problem.
About the author: Charles A. Prentiss, a retired urban planner with 33 years of experience in Honolulu, is a former executive secretary of the Honolulu City Planning Commission. He is a former city manager and has lectured on state and local government, comparative governments and constitutional law at Chaminade University; and urban planning and travel industry management at the University of Hawaii.|
For prosecutor, the need to treat everyone equally under the law sufficiently justifies a nonpartisan approach. However, nonpartisan elections have had undesirable consequences in Honolulu mayor and City Council races as they have in many other parts of the country, and cities are moving in the other direction or refusing to change from partisan. In 2003, New York City voters rejected switching from partisan to nonpartisan by a vote of 70 percent to 30 percent. Nonpartisan elections have negative effects on our two-party system, party platforms, voter turnout, conduct of elections and campaign financing.
Elections on a nonpartisan basis hurt one of the most important features of our democracy: the two-party system. The existence of two strong political parties distinguishes our system from democracies that are less stable because they have many small parties and independents. Even Japan recently dissolved its parliament because the "coalition" fell apart. Consider that the "Beer Drinking Party" is one of Poland's more than 30 parties. Our system also is rooted in local elections -- the grass-roots level. Without strong parties at the local level, it is difficult to build parties at higher levels where continuity and stability are indispensable.
The role of political parties in any system is far-reaching and essential. Parties mobilize voters behind candidates and raise interest in elections. They act as teachers of political ideology and interpreters of the confusion that can exist in political issues. Parties also perform an organizing role in elected government bodies as in the U.S. Congress, state legislatures and city councils; for example, when choosing committee chairpersons and members. Nonpartisanship might contribute to the seemingly constant reorganization of the Honolulu City Council.
Political parties represent a multigroup or coalition of voters who perform the function of aggregating and massaging issues and solutions for the general public to consider. The beliefs, attitudes and values of one nonpartisan candidate cannot match the combined, filtered values of a group the size of a major political party.
In contrast, it is difficult to determine what nonpartisan candidates really stand for, and many times they try to be all things to all people. In the absence of conceptual guidance to voters, celebrity sports or media personalities are often elected solely because of their name recognition. This might indicate a lack of information rather than a clear preference on the part of voters.
In nonpartisan elections, a party platform is absent. A party platform is prepared by a large number of people during long hours of deliberation, usually at state conventions. It spells out what their party stands for, and what might be expected if their candidates are elected. To varying degrees, candidates are held accountable to that platform. This important guidance is missing in nonpartisan elections.
Voter turnout in Honolulu has been among the lowest in the United States. In the recent election, we were two percentage points below Afghanistan! Nationwide, it appears that nonpartisan elections depress voter turnout especially among lower socioeconomic groups. Obviously, the party is not there to stimulate voting and provide information on candidates. Important interest and excitement in elections is lost.
There is also a serious structural problem with our nonpartisan election system that disenfranchises many voters and exacerbates the turnout problem. A number of nonpartisan elections have been decided on primary election day. However, many people do not vote in primary elections, but wait for the general election. Thus, many people do not vote in important races such as mayor and council member.
Conduct of elections
Political parties are important to government operations. State statutes assign official duties to political parties in the conduct of elections and regulate other activities.
» At official polling places, the chief official must be a member of the same party as the governor, and opposing parties must be represented on the staff.
» In some cases, parties must submit names of party members to fill vacancies of elected officials.
» There are rules governing how parties can collect and expend funds.
» In "closed" primaries, parties must qualify voters.
Well-organized, viable parties are essential to this process.
The important issue of campaign financing is very different in partisan and nonpartisan elections. Large contributions are a continuing problem in both cases, but a candidate with political party support will receive more small contributions from people who support the party's concepts and values. Nonpartisan candidates are much more susceptible to well-financed private interests because they have no party members to contribute, and no conceptual party base or platform to guide their decisions. They can more easily support those who gave them the "big bucks." Also, small, well-financed special interest groups can guide recruitment for nonpartisan candidates. This can dilute the connection between elected officials and the community.
What's best for Honolulu?
Nonpartisan elections reduce voter turnout and disenfranchise many voters. Compared with partisan elections, they tend to restrict meaningful public access to decision makers and blur the lines of responsibility between office holders and the electorate. According to the International City Management Association, "nonpartisanship often means the absence of continuing, competing, community-wide organizations or factions thereof which aggregate interests, stimulate participation, provide voters with rough indications as to candidate positions, and offer channels of communication between citizens and candidates or officials." With party membership falling, it appears that many of these problems are operative in Honolulu. Which Honolulu City and County elected official do you go to for support of the Democratic Party platform or the Republican Party platform? How can we increase voter turnout? The first step to address these problems is clear. We should return to partisan elections for Honolulu mayor and City Council.