One of the things I loved most about serving on the Dallas City Council was that it is a non-partisan body. Councilmembers don’t have parenthetical capital letters following their names that instantly put them in Camp Red or Team Blue. There are no political parties to either rely on or hide behind. Councilmembers are forced to learn issues and vote based on the will of their constituents. Majorities are wonderfully unreliable and uncertain and change based on the issue at hand, not party affiliation.
Likewise, voters in non-partisan city council races must have some knowledge of municipal issues and candidates when they show up at the polls. There is no party shorthand they can substitute for insight into a candidate’s values and positions, and voting “straight ticket” is not an option.
Say what you will about our Dallas City Council (and I know you will), but there is a beauty in this lack of party affiliation — something very authentic and real about legislators having to personally grapple with issues facing our city, knowing they can’t latch onto a party line, knowing they have to please a majority of all of the voters in their districts, not just a narrow partisan voting bloc.
So, I was concerned when I heard that there is a suggestion to move Dallas City Council elections from May (non-partisan) to November (partisan).
First, a quick recap of how elections work in Dallas.
We’ve essentially got two different sets of elections in our city. One takes place in May of odd-numbered years. These are our local elections for city council and school board seats. The mayor is on the ballot every four years, and sometimes there are city propositions as well. In these races, the candidates have no official party affiliation. Run-offs are frequent and take place about a month later, in June.
The other round of our elections is held in November of even-numbered years. These are the partisan races for everything from president to justice of the peace. Every candidate is attached to a political party. There are no run-offs because party primaries are held the preceding March to narrow the field, and even if a third-party candidate joins the fray, whoever gets the most votes wins.
The idea behind moving our city elections to November is to take advantage of the greater turnout for partisan races, and I can appreciate that. Increasing voter participation is a good thing. But we have to weigh that potential benefit against the very real possibility that party politics could infiltrate our local elections, and that local races and municipal issues could get lost in the frenzy of blue-red rhetoric.
The months leading up to November elections have become overwhelmed by heated partisan debates that have little bearing on how quickly our potholes get filled, how often our parks are mowed, and how we’re going to deal with all those pesky bicycles that are supposedly clogging our streets. With Republicans, Democrats and super PACs inundating our airwaves and mailboxes with partisan rhetoric, how would we engage in meaningful dialog about local issues? How would we ensure that our “everyday” Dallas problems are not overshadowed by Left versus Right debates, or worse, deformed by them? How would our local government be impacted if congressional candidates and local political parties began endorsing “down ballot” races like city council?
If we are seriously considering moving our city elections to coincide with partisan races, then we must appreciate the real risks involved. I, for one, am not convinced that the pros of more “engagement” outweigh the many cons that binary partisan debate would bring to our local government.
From a very practical standpoint, let’s think about how moving council races to November would impact our holidays. Council elections in early November would mean December run-offs, with early voting over the Thanksgiving holiday. If Dallasites are forced to choose between spending their Black Friday at the voting booth or shopping at NorthPark Center, I have a feeling that won’t be a hard choice.
Angela Hunt is a neighborhood resident and former Dallas city councilwoman in East Dallas. She writes a monthly opinion column about neighborhood issues. Her opinions are not necessarily those of the Advocate or its management. Send comments and ideas to her firstname.lastname@example.org.
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