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Missouri Secretary Of State Wants Nonpartisan Local Elections To Become Partisan

Voters line up on the sidewalk along Liberty Street in Independence to vote absentee at the Jackson County Election Board office on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Voters line up on the sidewalk along Liberty Street in Independence to vote absentee at the Jackson County Election Board office on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020.

Ashcroft said voter turnout is much higher in partisan elections for state and federal offices, and changing local and municipal elections could bring more people to the polls. But the idea is already drawing criticism.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft thinks voter turnout in Missouri’s local elections would be better if they were partisan.

In the 2020 presidential election, voter turnout in Missouri was 70%, a stark contrast to nonpartisan municipal elections in the state that can see as few as 10% of voters going to the polls. That’s why Ashcroft is considering a measure to narrow that gap, by having candidates for local offices pick a party.

“Local government may be more important to people’s day-to-day lives than at the state and federal levels,” Ashcroft said, adding that it’s not good for big decisions about people’s everyday lives to be determined by the outcome of elections with so few people showing up to the polls.

“If we were to make some of those partisan, we’re not trying to make them more combative, would that help more people to come out? Does calling them nonpartisan make people think they are not important?”

Such a move would require legislation and likely be the subject of fierce debate. But the idea already does not sit well with some election officials, officeholders and voting experts.

One objection is the possibility of discouraging people from seeking public office.

“Say I want to run for local school board,” said Anita Manion, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “But to me that’s not a partisan issue. For me it’s about strengthening our education system and not alienating neighbors who are of another political party.”

Rolla City Councilwoman Jody Eberly is an example of a candidate who would be turned off by the prospect of being forced to choose a party.

“I can tell you that I would probably not be running,” Eberly said. “With the last couple of years, things have become so rancorous and so bitter and polarized that I think there are a lot of good people out there who just would not want to be involved in that.”

Rolla saw voter turnout in its 2021 municipal election at 12%, compared to 15% in 2020.

Eberly said it’s ultimately the responsibility of candidates for local office to walk the neighborhoods and encourage people to turn out for local elections. She wishes more people voted, but says making them partisan is not the way to achieve that goal, and she has allies among election advocates.

“There are better ways to increase voter turnout,” said Marilyn McLeod, president of the Missouri League of Women Voters. “A simple one would be like we did a year ago during COVID, where we made mail-in ballots more widely available, and people really liked that.”

McLeod said before the state considers a radical change like eliminating nonpartisan elections, it should first make sure it’s as easy as possible to cast a ballot.

No-excuse absentee ballots, early voting and more mail-in options are all proven to increase voter turnout, Manion said.

But she said there may be a way to get the turnout of a partisan election without requiring city and school board candidates to pick a party, by combining their elections.

“So instead of voting five different times in Missouri, maybe you vote one time a year. Those things have been shown to have much more effect on voter turnout than something like making elections more partisan,” Manion said.

But even that has critics. If state, federal, county, city, school board and other races were all on the same ballot, and all with different district lines, that could mean each precinct may have to offer dozens of different ballots.

“The number of splits or different ballot styles those districts would have to create would, in my opinion, lead to more voter confusion, and it would create an undue burden on the election authority in those areas,” said Pulaski County Clerk Dave Ernst.

St. Louis Public Radio

Political parties may see this proposal as a great way to build a pipeline for candidates for higher offices.

“It certainly would make it more clear what party a city council member was with, and they would have the experience of running for office with their party’s support,” Manion said.

Ashcroft’s idea is far from reality, as it can’t even be introduced as a possible law change until the legislature convenes in January.

He said that it’s worth considering, and that it could be a way to encourage diversity of political thought instead of just another race between Republicans and Democrats.

“You can run as a Green candidate, a Libertarian, you can be a Constitutional Candidate. People of all of those have run. Especially in local races, individuals and smaller parties have a greater chance of being successful,” Ashcroft said.

But regardless, a decision to change local elections would be up to the state legislature, a group of Republicans and Democrats who were all elected to office via partisan elections.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl
Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

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