TERRY COWGILL
TERRY COWGILL

Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the last 10 to 20 years, you’ve surely noticed how our political landscape has devolved into a hyper-partisan cesspool. Politics has always been a rough-and-tumble environment in the United States, but the divide has widened; for the last decade or so, our divisions have been amplified by social media, where any loudmouth with an axe to grind can start unfounded rumors about candidates or spread any number of half-baked conspiracy theories.

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed that even local races, such as those up for grabs on Nov. 2, are becoming more contentious as national issues have crept into campaigns. It seems especially bad in Connecticut where, for some strange reason, it seems that all elections — from town registrars of voters to planning and zoning all the way up to the governor’s mansion — are partisan.

I’ve never quite understood why this is. Most people who have never lived outside our state might think it’s normal, but it’s definitely not. The origins of our highly partisan political culture are unknown to me, but one thing I do know is that the system needs reform.

There are exceptions, of course, but elections for local offices tend to be fought less along party lines than their state and federal counterparts. After all, as former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter once observed, “There is no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole” — or subdivide a lot, for that matter.

There are differences in philosophy on issues such as land use and education spending, for example, but they are often more a result of personal experience than party affiliation. Still, lawmakers in their infinite wisdom have crafted Connecticut’s elections laws in such a way as to actually encourage partisanship on the local level.

The ballots, such as this one for my town, actually contain party lines, with each party having its own column. I can only assume they’re designed that way to make it easier to vote the party line. I’m guessing this is a remnant of a bygone era. After all, we’re talking about a state of such partisanship that until 1986, there was a straight-ticket lever on voting machines which, with one flick of the finger, allowed lazy voters to cast entire election ballots strictly along party lines. Meanwhile, on today’s ballots, the row for petitioning candidates is in the third slot, behind — you guessed it — Republicans and Democrats.

Nonpartisan elections make especially good sense in a state like Connecticut, where almost all the major cities are so dominated by Democrats that the primary actually functions as the de facto general election.

In addition to Connecticut, I’ve worked as a journalist in two other states. In Massachusetts, almost all local elections are nonpartisan, meaning the Democratic and Republican town committees do not act as gatekeepers by holding caucuses and nominating a slate of candidates. Anyone who wants to run for school board or municipal office may do so by collecting the required number of signatures on a petition. Even candidates for Boston’s mayor and City Council run as petitioning candidates, though it is widely known that almost all are registered Democrats.

In New York, races for town and city council tend to be partisan. Elections for school board, however, are emphatically not, in part because school board members are supposed to set policies for the benefit of school children, not advance the agenda of a political party.

The National League of Cities has published a handy guide to municipal elections in the 30 largest cities in the nation. Nonpartisan elections are the norm in 21 of them. According to Political Research Quarterly, as of 2017, best estimates are that between two-thirds and three-fourths of all U.S. localities used nonpartisan ballots, though “legislatures in Kansas, Tennessee, Indiana, Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida have all considered legislation that would either mandate their local school districts move to a partisan election model or allow districts to switch at will.” So partisan lawmakers want those farther down the food chain to be more like those in the state capitol? I guess they consider forced imitation to be the sincerest form of flattery.

Connecticut’s practice of making all elections partisan often has the effect of making all races national. Local candidates are commonly asked to defend or disavow what their national parties are doing. Of what possible relevance is this to a candidate for first selectman or town council?

Look at those poor Republicans in West Hartford and Glastonbury, who earlier this year left their party in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection and GOP attempts to decertify the presidential election. This kind of display wouldn’t even be necessary if our local elections were nonpartisan. But they are indeed necessary because town political committees hold enormous power in deciding which candidates get on the ballots.

Cementing the hegemony of the two parties in Connecticut, unaffiliated voters may not vote in primaries. That’s ironic given the fact that Connecticut’s unaffiliated voters outnumber those enrolled in either the Republican or Democratic parties.

At this point in our history, the last thing we need is to encourage people to take their eyes off of community issues and look at their local elections through a national lens. The disappearance of so many local newspapers has done enough damage.

To wit, the nationalization of local affairs is exacerbated by the shrinking coverage of local news. In a trenchant piece in The Atlantic earlier this month on the death of an Iowa newspaper, Elaine Godfrey observed that in the absence of local news, all news becomes national:

“Instead of reading about local policy decisions, people read about the blacklisting of Dr. Seuss books. Instead of learning about their own local candidates, they consume angry takes about Marjorie Taylor Greene.”

There are those who defend partisan elections by arguing that voters have a right to know which party candidates belong to when they cast a ballot and that the party designation acts as a sort of marker for voters who haven’t been paying attention. That problem can be solved easily. If the petitioning candidate is enrolled in a political party, the designation can be added to the ballot parenthetically, as is done in many Massachusetts towns with nonpartisan elections.

I would urge Connecticut lawmakers to consider adopting a model similar to that of Massachusetts, where not only are local races nonpartisan but unaffiliated voters may vote in either party’s primaries. As a first step, get rid of Connecticut’s silly minority representation law that forbids only smaller towns from electing too many members of one party to any town board or commission. We’re the only state in the nation that has it.

I would be thrilled if the supremacy of the two parties was broken. But expecting Connecticut’s Republican and Democratic lawmakers to change the system is, I’m sure, a bridge too far. But a guy can wish …

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at PolitiConn and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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