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Our View: Increased interest is good, but local elections should stay nonpartisan | COMMENTARY

Carroll County’s municipalities all contest nonpartisan elections. That means candidates for mayor and council seats in our cities and towns — as with the vast majority of municipalities across the country — run without party affiliation.

Which makes sense. The hot-button topics that have us so divided as a nation traditionally don’t come into play at the local level, where elected officials worry about trash collection and water rates and the sewer system and zoning while keeping the streets clean and safe.

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From Taneytown to Sykesville and all cities and towns in between, municipal leaders need to be responsive to their citizens, finding solutions to issues big and small by working together with other elected officials who come from all walks of life. No filibusters here. No toeing the party line.

Unlike statewide and national politics, it isn’t red vs. blue, it’s neighbors working with neighbors to serve their neighbors. All stakeholders; all in it together. It’s been said local government is the most effective government. Party labels can do nothing but get in the way of that.

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As the national trend has been to turn everything into a tribal war, it is probably inevitable that local elections become more partisan. This year’s Westminster mayoral race has taken on a far more partisan feel. The Carroll County Republican Central Committee is endorsing a candidate — Carroll County Democratic Central Committee Chairman Don West said his organization’s policy is not to endorse candidates in nonpartisan elections — and the state Republican Party has mobilized in an effort to bring in volunteers to knock on doors.

It’s hard to imagine turning any municipal race into a referendum on party affiliation won’t bring the national divide closer to home and, in turn, put up impediments to elected officials working together and constituents reaching out.

We can’t, however, ignore the fact that municipal elections, as important as they are, typically have abysmal voter turnout. In the 2019 Westminster election, 686 votes were cast out of 12,026 voters. That means 5.7% of registered voters turned out to elect three members to the city’s council. In 2017, the last time there was a mayoral race, 8% voted.

Similar to how the last, highly contentious presidential election produced record voting numbers, the situation in Westminster is, at the very least, likely to improve turnout.

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One of the theories about why turnout is lower for nonpartisan elections is that despite having greater access to information than ever before, voters do not feel they can make informed choices without seeing an (R) or (D) next to a candidate’s name. No matter what a candidate stands for, the biggest determining factor for someone casting a ballot is party affiliation, most employing “straight-ticket” voting.

While we are glad to see more interest than usual in the Westminster race, we would much rather voters take a few minutes to be informed about the candidates — who they are, what they have done, where they stand on local issues, what they say they will do if elected — rather than voting for a letter following a name.

We would hope nonpartisan election winners are beholden only to the citizens. And we like the fact that an independent or fringe-party candidate with out-of-the-box ideas, unelectable at the state or national level, could very well win a municipal election. We fear if state parties begin to regularly throw their considerable resources behind local candidates, it will be a barrier to entry for those who can’t afford to compete.

Nationally, partisan politics has driven a wedge between us, deepening the divide every four years. This is not an endorsement or rejection of any candidate in Westminster or anywhere else; just a plea to keep nonpartisan elections nonpartisan.

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