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Missouri Secretary Of State Ashcroft Wants Nonpartisan Local Elections To Become Partisan

File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

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.

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.

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft met with local election officials and the media at a stop Thursday in Rolla
St. Louis Public Radio

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

Jonathan is the General Manager of Tri States Public radio. His duties include but are not limited to, managing all facets of the station, from programming to finances to operations. Jonathan grew up in the south suburbs of Chicago. He has a B.A in music theory and composition from WIU and a M.A in Public Affairs Reporting from The University of Illinois at Springfield. Jonathan began his journey in radio as a student worker at WIUM. While in school Jonathan needed a summer job on campus. He heard WIUM was hiring, and put his bid in. Jonathan was welcomed on the team and was very excited to be using his music degree. He had also always been interested in news and public radio. He soon learned he was a much better reporter than a musician and his career was born. While at WIUM, Jonathan hosted classical music, completed operations and production work, was a news reporter and anchor, and served as the stage manager for Rural Route 3. Jonathan then went to on to WIUS in Springfield where he was a news anchor and reporter covering the state legislature for Illinois Public Radio. After a brief stint in commercial radio and TV, Jonathan joined WCBU in Peoria, first in operations then as a news reporter and for the last ten years of his time there he served as the News Director. Jonathan’s last job before returning to Tri States Public Radio was as the News Director/ Co-Director of Content for Iowa Public Radio. During Jonathan’s off time he enjoys distance running, playing competitive Scrabble, rooting for Chicago Cubs, listening to all kinds of music and reading as much as he can. He lives in Macomb with his wife Anita and children Tommy and Lily.