Teams without Uniforms: The Nonpartisan Ballot in State and Local Elections

By Schaffner, Brian F.; Streb, Matthew et al. | Political Research Quarterly, March 2001 | Go to article overview
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Teams without Uniforms: The Nonpartisan Ballot in State and Local Elections


Schaffner, Brian F., Streb, Matthew, Wright, Gerald, Political Research Quarterly


The use of a nonpartisan ballot was one of the many Progressive reforms introduced around the turn of the century that is still heavily used today. The intent of the change to a nonpartisan format was, and still is, to remove party cues from a voter's decision, thereby causing the voter to seek out other information about a candidate. This study seeks to examine the effects of nonpartisan elections on patterns of voter decisionmaking. We examine the structure of electoral choice in partisan and nonpartisan elections at the state and local levels using paired comparisons and interrupted time series. Using precinct and district level voting data, we compare mayoral races in the sister cities of Champaign and Urbana (IL) and state legislative elections in Nebraska and Kansas. In addition, we examine the city of Asheville (NC) during its change from partisan to nonpartisan elections in the early 1990s and state legislative elections in Minnesota during its change from nonpartisan to partisan contests in the early 1970s. The analysis of these cases helps us to understand the effects of removing party identification from the ballot. We find that nonpartisanship depresses turnout and that in nonpartisan contests voters rely less on party and more on incumbency in their voting decisions. The nonpartisan ballot "works," but how one evaluates the results depends on one's view of the electorate and the purpose of elections.

As of 1991, about three-quarters of all municipalities in the United States used nonpartisan elections to select their public officials (DeSantis and Renner 1991). Nonpartisan elections are also widely used in voting for judges and, in Nebraska, for the state legislature. Adrian (1959) noted that over half of the elections in this country are nonpartisan; yet party identification is often the central variable in many voting models. Citizens are voting in a large number of elections without the benefit of their major voting cue, but little research has been conducted regarding how voters choose between candidates when their party labels are removed from the ballot. It is our aim in this article to fill in some of the blanks about the impact of the nonpartisan ballot on information and elections. Specifically, we make three claims. First, voter turnout will be less in nonpartisan elections. Second, candidates' party affiliations will have less impact on the vote in nonpartisan elections. Finally, because party identification is not readily available to voters, the impact of incumbency on vote choice will become greater. Using data on elections at the local and state level, we test these hypotheses to examine the role of information in voting behavior.

THE PROGRESSIVES VS. THE POLITICAL SCIENTISTS

We draw on two divergent theoretical traditions in developing hypotheses about the role of partisanship in state and local elections. We begin with a discussion of the Progressive Movement and the goals that they had in pushing the nonpartisan ballot, among other reforms. We find in their perspective a rather clear view of the electorate and the role of partisanship in influencing the character of voter decisionmaking. Then we fold into this more recent thinking about party identification from the voting behavior literature, particularly that influenced by the rational choice and cognitive psychological approaches. Together these views provide the set of hypotheses that guide our analysis.

The Progressives and Nonpartisanship

Progressives believed that the party machine system prominent around the beginning of the twentieth century limited direct government by the people (Duncan 1913; Hofstadter 1955; Gould 1986). The goal of the Progressives was to remove party politics from the local level, which would cripple the machines' powers and make municipal governments more responsive to citizens. Among the reforms that the Progressives promoted was the nonpartisan election. According to the Progressives, nonpartisan elections would eliminate national parties from the local scene and keep their divisive influences out of municipal decisionmaking.

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