Photo by Marcy Stamper
Lon and Debbie Sander want candidates with integrity, not a specific party affiliation.

Does it make any difference whether a local office is nonpartisan?

When you filled in that little box next to your choice for county treasurer, sheriff or coroner, was it helpful to know if that person was a Democrat or a Republican? After all, the key qualifications seem to be expertise in finance, law enforcement and forensics.

The partisan nature of these offices was enshrined in the first laws passed when Washington became a state but, 130 years later, no one knows exactly why the Legislature set it up that way.

A random sampling of local voters found most don’t rely on party labels. Instead, they look for competent professionals to manage the county’s finances or law enforcement.

Joe Brown of Winthrop got to the crux of the issue. “Is a Republican sheriff going to be more effective than a Democratic one?” he said. “I’m more interested in public safety, guns, and safety in schools.”

“They need integrity. I wouldn’t care about the party, but I’d check their background,” said Debbie Sander of Twisp.

“I’m not a good person to ask — I don’t care about the party, but their stance on the issues,” said a woman shopping in Twisp. “But particularly for those offices, it seems odd,” she said.

Regardless of political leaning, it was frustration with the acrimony and lack of cooperation between the major political parties, particularly on the national level, that animated most voters.

“You need to wipe them all out and start over in Congress — they’re like kids that can’t get along,” said Sander.

“I just wonder if the parties are against each other,” said Lon Sander, who was at the Twisp post office with his wife, Debbie. Lon said it wasn’t critical to know the party affiliation of local candidates.

But for Brown, the party affiliations end up being helpful in a roundabout way. “I think it is a reason to pause when voting. It forces us — and that’s actually good — to figure out who the candidates are,” he said. “What matters is how good a job they do, and how they serve the public. It’s kind of an invitation to be more thoughtful about the candidates.”

Party affiliations help guide some voters. “Nationally, for these types of races, what matters most is name recognition,” said Jay Wendland, assistant professor of political science at Daemen College in Buffalo, New York. “If people don’t understand what the position entails and don’t recognize a name, they’ll simply vote for the party they tend to support.”

Having some party label or affiliation appears to help increase turnout. “Usually more ballots are cast when there’s a partisan label. Often non-partisan races have pretty abysmal turnout,” said Wendland, who said voters skip those races if they don’t know anything about the candidates or the position they’re running for.

For some offices, partisanship would be an issue. “Judges absolutely need to be nonpartisan,” said Bill Hottell of Twisp, a retired history teacher. “But for county assessor and clerk, there’s no reason they should have a political affiliation, because they don’t make any policy.”

In Okanogan County, where party preferences are so uniform — this year, all but one of the 14 candidates for county office stated a preference for the Republican Party — voters may have more reason to dig into specifics about the candidates.

Only Branden Platter, who’s running to keep his seat as Okanogan County prosecuting attorney, declared a preference for the Democratic Party. Platter was appointed last year after his predecessor, Karl Sloan (also a Democrat) resigned. In the case of a resignation, the political party appoints a replacement, who must then go before the voters at the next general election. Republican Arian Noma is challenging Platter.

The race for District 3 county commissioner — a policy-making position — had two independents challenging incumbent Republican Jim DeTro.

Not only do most of these candidates identify as Republicans, but most are running unopposed. Only two races — to replace retiring auditor Laurie Thomas and retiring sheriff Frank Rogers — were contested, with two Republicans competing in the primary for auditor and six Republicans vying to become the county’s next sheriff.

Changing options/home-rule charter

Although the partisan basis of these elections dates to 1889, state law has changed so that judges and the superintendent of public instruction are now nonpartisan. In addition, the state Constitution was amended in 1948 to allow counties to adopt a home-rule charter form of government.

Home-rule counties can elect a county executive or use a commission, and can choose if their elected positions are partisan. Any county official, other than the prosecuting attorney and superior court judges, can be appointed, rather than elected in charter counties.

Home rule is a long process that requires a group of elected freeholders to develop a charter to put before the electorate, and few counties took advantage of the option until the late 1960s and ’70s. Today, seven counties are run under a home-rule charter, but voters rejected the switch in 10 others.

The Municipal Research and Services Center (MRSC) of Washington believes that the organization of county governments, where elected officials perform functions like property assessment, law enforcement and tax collection, was strategic. “It provided broad opportunities for participation and influence, and much electoral activity — as if to make up for the lack of electoral control over territorial officials,” said MRSC.

Primary system

Although in Washington’s top-two primary system (used for the first time in 2008), candidates can state a party preference (or no preference), that preference doesn’t mean the candidate is endorsed by or affiliated with the party. The top vote-getters, regardless of party preference, advance to the general election.

Washington has tried various primary systems over the years. In the early 20th century, voters could cast ballots in primary elections only for candidates in one political party. That changed in 1935, when the state adopted the “blanket primary” system, in which voters could vote for a candidate of one party for one office and a candidate from a different party for the next office.

After the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated California’s blanket primary system, saying it violated political parties’ freedom of association, Washington began exploring alternatives. A study found voters liked being able to vote in the primary without having to affiliate with a party, according to the Washington Secretary of State.

After the Washington governor vetoed the top-two primary in 2004, Washington used the “pick-a-party” primary, where voters had to declare a party affiliation — at least for the primary. But voters didn’t like having to pick a party, even briefly (more than 14,000 called the secretary of state to complain). In the next election, a top-two initiative got backing from 60 percent of voters.

The state Republican Party challenged the top-two primary in court and won. That case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008, which determined that the top-two primary didn’t impose a burden on parties’ right to associate. Washington started using the system that year.

Political scientists have just begun to study the effect of top-two primaries on elections (now used by Washington and California). Parties appear to like the system because it gives them the chance to knock out the opposition by having two of their candidates on the ballot, said Wendland.