Non-partisan races would be a plus for Frederick County

Kai Hagen

September 23, 2004

Readers of this column expect commentary that conveys personal and firmly held opinions. And most of the time, that's what you get. As an actively involved member of this community, and as a columnist, I'm both opinionated and outspoken.

Nevertheless, I do my best to avoid exploring problems and presenting possibilities in a partisan manner, preferring practical solutions to political points, applying common sense in pursuit of common ground.

That approach can seem like paddling against the current, however, as thoughtful problem solving and genuine public dialogue is so often overwhelmed by increasingly polarized and acrimonious political debate.

With the country so sharply divided along political lines, I've been told it's naive to believe local politics might be less partisan. But it could be. And it should be.

There are real differences among us, of course, when it comes to the best way to address this local issue or that. But they really aren't partisan differences most of the time. More often than not, at the level of municipal or county government, the political parties simply aren't as necessary as they'd like to be.

Eighty-three percent of voters in Frederick County identify themselves as Republican or Democrat when they registered. But it would be surprising if most members of what Maryland refers to as the "principal political parties" made that choice based on a specific party platform or philosophy about adequate public facilities ordinances, or where to put a waste transfer station, or how to divide Potomac River water between the city and the county.

Most voters made that choice based on other things, such as, well, you can imagine the list of possibilities.

You would be hard pressed, though, to figure out a major party platform by scrutinizing the Republicans and Democrats who county voters have elected to the Board of County Commissioners in the last couple of elections. Interestingly, in the 2002 election, a new political action committee, Frederick Countians for True Republicans, did not endorse all of the Republican primary winners, excluding John Thompson, who won the most votes, and did endorse Democrat Bruce Reeder.

But without fail, and perhaps without regard to anything else about the individual candidates, the Republican and Democrat parties endorsed all the primary winners who carried their banner. And a fair proportion of voters in each party probably voted that way, for the same reason, despite big differences, even contrary views, on numerous issues.

If that were true across the board, all five at-large seats would be filled by candidates from one party. But there are also plenty of voters who don't vote a straight party ticket. And, even more significant, there are nearly 20,000 unaffiliated voters registered in Frederick County.

That's a lot of people who have decided not to register as Republicans or Democrats, even though it means they can't vote in the primary election.

At a state and federal level, political party affiliation is more useful, perhaps even necessary. Large campaigns are expensive, and time consuming, and would be much harder to manage without the support of political parties. But at the county and municipal level, there are a variety of ways in which partisan politics doesn't serve the public interest.

Voters in nonpartisan elections can focus on a candidate's platform and problem-solving skills. Nonpartisan elections take the emphasis away from party affiliation, and place it on what's best for the community.

And they compel voters to think about who and what they want, rather than voting for the candidate of their party because they don't know any better

Nonpartisan doesn't mean political parties aren't involved. But it does mean all candidates run and all voters vote regardless of party affiliation (or not), in the primary and final election. Non-partisan elections allow every voter to participate, party members and independents alike.

Making this sort of change at the county level would be a long shot.

There's no escaping the fact that all the key decision-makers are elected Republicans and Democrats.

But even if we can't change the system easily or soon, if at all, as voters we can get part way there on our own by taking a good look at all the candidates and not just voting a straight party-endorsed slate of candidates.

In the end, there is no Republican or Democrat way to build a road, or a park, or a school.

To get in touch, e-mail Kai Hagen at