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Portsmouth Town Council rejects nonpartisan elections

5-1 vote to keep proposed charter amendment off ballot falls along party lines

By Jim McGaw
Posted 7/21/20

PORTSMOUTH — The town won’t be following Tiverton, Newport or Middletown by switching to nonpartisan elections, at least for the time being.

During a virtual meeting Monday night, …

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Portsmouth Town Council rejects nonpartisan elections

5-1 vote to keep proposed charter amendment off ballot falls along party lines

Posted

PORTSMOUTH — The town won’t be following Tiverton, Newport or Middletown by switching to nonpartisan elections, at least for the time being.

During a virtual meeting Monday night, the council voted 5-1 to reject a Charter Review Committee (CRC) proposal to place a referendum on the November ballot asking voters whether the Town Charter should be amended so that candidates for School Committee compete in nonpartisan elections in the future.

Voting against the proposal were Council President Kevin Aguiar, Council Vice President Linda Ujifusa, Len Katzman, Andrew Kelly, and J. Mark Ryan — all Democrats who are running for reelection in November. Mr. Hamilton, the sole Republican council member and the only member of the GOP seeking reelection in town races, voted to approve the CRC’s recommendation. Another Democrat member running for reelection, Daniela Abbott, was not present for the vote.

“I think it’s reprehensible the council is going to take this action,” said Mr. Hamilton, who saw the writing on the wall before the vote on the school board elections. The CRC worked hard for over a year to bring the recommendation forward, he said, “and we’ve got a Democratically led council to decide that the voters don’t matter.”

The CRC, a group of about 20 citizens who were appointed in January 2019, voted not to recommend nonpartisan elections for Town Council. Mr. Hamilton, however, made a motion to put the question before voters anyway. His motion failed to get a second.

In a nonpartisan election, no political affiliation, if one exists, is shown on the ballot next to a candidate. Supporters say such elections would allow for federal employees — people who work at the Naval War College, for example — to run for office, since the federal Hatch Act prohibits them from competing in partisan elections. Nonpartisan elections would also force voters to learn more about local candidates and what they stand for, some proponents argue.

Opponents of nonpartisan elections argue they deny voters valuable information because there are clear differences in how Republicans and Democrats approach local issues. Nonpartisan elections can also lead to lower voter turnout, opponents say.

Fewer candidates 

Mr. Hamilton argued that due to the “hyper-partisan” nature of elections over the past four years, potential candidates seem to be “more and more afraid to put a letter next to their name, and they decide not to run.”

He noted that in Newport, which has nonpartisan elections, 19 candidates are running for seven seats on the city council. “The Portsmouth Town Council has eight candidates running for seven seats,” he said. “I believe we’re shortchanging people by having partisan elections.” 

Addressing the notion that deleting party affiliation on a ballot denies voters valuable information about candidates, Mr. Hamilton referred back to a remark Mr. Katzman had made earlier in the evening regarding the Portsmouth Water and Fire District elections. 

The council was debating another charter panel proposal that would have banned any council member from simultaneously serving on the water board, as Mr. Kelly does. Mr. Katzman argued voters can research each candidate themselves, and if they see any problems with someone serving on both panels, they can vote as they please.

If that’s the case, Mr. Hamilton said, voters can similarly research council and school board candidates in a nonpartisan election, then make their own decision.

“Just having an ‘R’ or ‘D’ next to your name, that gives you about 5 percent of what that person stands for,” he said. “There is a huge difference between myself as a Republican and Donald Trump. There’s a huge difference between Mr. Aguiar as a Democrat and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”

Ultimately, voters should be making the decision on nonpartisan elections, he said. “I’m willing to accept what the voters say, and give it to them to make that decision … and not the seven of us.”

‘Hidden party elections’

Mr. Katzman responded by referring to nonpartisan elections as “hidden party elections” because that information would be “concealed from the voters in the voting booth,” despite the fact that party affiliation would still show up on the ballot for state and congressional races.

“I think it does a grave disservice to voters,” said Mr. Katzman. 

As for Mr. Hamilton’s claim that more candidates would run in a nonpartisan election, he said with the exception of one election year from 2004 to 2018, Portsmouth had more council candidates than did Newport. “There simply is no evidence locally to suggest that by having hidden party elections, that brings out some of groundswell of people who would not run otherwise,” he said.

Mr. Katzman also said the inclusion of party affiliation drives voter participation, and there’s evidence to suggest that in the absence of party labels, voters use name recognition as a proxy. 

“In other words, incumbents do better,” he said. If the Democrats on the council voted to support nonpartisan elections, they’d actually be helping their reelection chances, said Mr. Katzman.

Although she left the virtual meeting before the vote, Ms. Abbott said she favored partisan elections because she identifies with and receives so much support from the Democratic Party. However, she was “torn” on the matter, saying that “99 percent” of the decisions made by the council have nothing to do with party politics. 

Mr. Hamilton countered that one of the first decisions the current council made (in December 2018) was to appoint two residents to fill unexpired terms on the School Committee. Rather than appoint a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for the school board just a month earlier, the council voted for two Democrats whose names weren’t even on the ballot, he said.

“Party politics definitely come into play on the Town Council,” Mr. Hamilton said.

Residents speak out

Several residents chimed in during the Zoom meeting to support switching to nonpartisan elections, including Larry Fitzmorris of the taxpayer group Portsmouth Concerned Citizens. He said the recent lack of candidates for council, and especially school board, is a problem. 

“Six members of the council are guaranteed to be elected to the council, no matter what,” he said. “This is a self-interest item … Council members shouldn’t make this decision. This is a decision the people of Portsmouth should be making.”

Nancy Grieb, a member of the CRC, agreed. “Please show some faith in the voters of Portsmouth,” she said.

The upside of nonpartisan elections, she said, include federal employees being allowed to run, and the end of independent candidates being marginalized. “This council is the simple definition of a partisan group,” Ms. Grieb added, noting that Mr. Katzman chairs the Portsmouth Democratic Town Committee. 

Conni Harding, another member of the CRC, said many municipalities have nonpartisan school board elections, but keep council races partisan. The same could be done in Portsmouth to generate more excitement in politics as well as attract younger candidates, she said.

Ms. Ujifusa, however, said she’s spoken to many people in municipalities that switched over to nonpartisan elections. They told her they now regret doing so because such elections devolve into popularity contests where money talks, she said.

Anyway, she said, nonpartisan elections are not the answer in getting new blood to seek public office.

“It is to have people beating the bushes, getting people to run and getting involved,” Ms. Ujifusa said.

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