St. Louis County Charter Commission debates making elections nonpartisan

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com

Four months before its deadline to review and recommend changes to the county Charter, the St. Louis County Charter Commission is exploring the possibility of drafting a proposal that would make all countywide elections nonpartisan.

The idea of making county elections nonpartisan has been a theme throughout the Charter Commission’s work, especially in conjunction with a possible proposal to change the St. Louis County government structure into one that installs the role of a county manager.

In the Charter panel’s weekly meetings, commissioners have weighed nonpartisan elections, but also have heard public comments about instituting a runoff voting system or ranked voting.

In runoff races, voters cast a single vote for their chosen candidate. If no candidate receives the required number of votes, then the two candidates who received the most votes move into a runoff election and a second round of voting is held.

In a ranked voting system, voters rank all the candidates in order of preference. Ballots are then initially counted for each voter’s top choice, and the candidate that has more than half the vote based on first choices wins. If no candidate receives more than half the first-choice votes, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. The process continues until a candidate has more than half of the votes.

The suggestion to explore nonpartisan elections was first brought up at the commission’s initial meeting in February by former Commissioner Ron Watermon, who resigned two days later after other members found out he helped write Better Together’s city-county merger executive summary and hadn’t disclosed that when the panel members brought up Better Together.

Watermon suggested that while the Charter is a well-written document that has helped govern the county for many years, the commission should consider the issue of making elections nonpartisan. He noted that a majority of the 10 largest cities in the country employ nonpartisan elections and that municipalities in St. Louis County also run nonpartisan races. Of the 10 largest cities by population in the United States, seven hold nonpartisan elections, including Chicago, Phoenix and Dallas.

During public comments at the commission’s second meeting in March, Crestwood resident Martha Duchild spoke in favor of nonpartisan elections because she believes partisan elections may discourage people who do not identify with a certain party from running for office.

“Many county residents who may be otherwise qualified candidates and wish to run for county elective office may be deterred from registering as candidates because the elective offices are partisan. It’s safe to say that those people would prefer to not be identified with a political party or do not share all of that party’s ideologies,” said Duchild. “Those same people, given the right conditions, would be encouraged to run and, if elected, have the freedom to vote according to what they think is best for the county, irrespective of any political party influence.”

Colleen Wasinger

County Council Presiding Officer Ernie Trakas, a Republican who represents the 6th District, shared similar feelings as Duchild about the topic.

“We need to take a serious look at a county manager system and nonpartisan system, frankly,” Trakas told The Call. “I think partisan politics gets in the way too much of the time. I think if we just had open races where anybody could run… I don’t see a downside to that… Other than the challenge to the authority and power of the political machine, Republican or Democrat, doesn’t matter… Because they are both machines, and they both operate the same way.”

Commissioner Colleen Wasinger, a Republican former council member who has spearheaded the commission’s consideration of a county-manager form of government, is a proponent of nonpartisan elections because the municipal services the county provides are often not politically motivated. She also believes it would increase voter turnout because currently, non politically-affiliated voters are locked out of primaries.

But not all commissioners are convinced that nonpartisan elections are the route to go. Commissioner Courtney Allen Curtis, a former state legislator from Ferguson, has stated at multiple meetings his concern that nonpartisan elections and runoff elections could disenfranchise minority voters.

The commission was scheduled to discuss making a formal proposal for nonpartisan elections at its Aug. 21 meeting, but the item was postponed until a later date.

The panel has until Dec. 31 to finish its work, which can be convened every 10 years by voters.