The term “nonpartisanship” has been used in at least four different ways, all related to efforts at reducing or eliminating party influence in the political process. Political scientists are interested in studying the subject because nonpartisanship in any of its forms alters the relative balance of power of various segments of society as well as the functions of various social and political institutions. The different meanings of the term include the following:
(1) Bipartisanship. Journalists, public officials, and citizens sometimes say “nonpartisan” when a political scientist would say “bipartisan.” They may do this, for example, in referring to a commission when the law does not permit the membership to consist of members of only one political party, or to a particular legislative issue which may have been approached without close regard to party lines. “Nonpartisanship” in this sense is sometimes praised in the United States as “rising above petty party concerns” and is viewed by many citizens as a preferred approach to public policy making.
(2) Monopartisanship. The writings of V. O. Key, Jr., and other political scientists refer to the “quasi-nonpartisanship” of one-party politics which is common in the United States, especially in the South. In this sense, the term emphasizes the lack of a clearly labeled opposition group in a politicalaction situation.
(3) An elections system based on a particular form of the ballot. In many nations, labels indicating the party memberships of candidates are not placed on the ballot. Nonetheless, elections in these political systems are regarded as party matters, the ballot is normally short, no primary election is used, and the party affiliation of candidates is easily determined and widely publicized. In these countries, nonpartisanship is not a familiar concept. In the United States, however, where the ballot normally contains a great many names and party identifications have traditionally been printed on the ballot, a “nonpartisan” election commonly refers to an election in which party labels are not printed on the ballot.
When the nonpartisan ballot is used, the general election is usually preceded by a “primary” election. The latter is actually an elimination contest designed to reduce the number of candidates to twice the number of positions to be filled. In some cases, the law provides that if any candidate receives more than 50 per cent of the vote in the primary, he is declared elected and no general election takes place for that office. Sometimes no primary is provided for, and the winner is the candidate receiving a plurality of the vote in the general election. Many procedures are essentially the same as those for partisan elections, including the procedure by which persons secure a place on the ballot. Names are usually listed in alphabetical order in both the primary and general elections, sometimes with a rotation system of the sort often used for partisan primary elections.
The nonpartisan ballot is generally used in attempts to eliminate or at least weaken political party influence. In actual practice, however, political parties may be involved in nonpartisan elections in the following ways: First, parties may dominate the selection of candidates, and campaign strategies may be popularly viewed as those of the parties. This is often the case, for example, in Chicago aldermanic elections. Second, parties may be only one of the groups recruiting and supporting candidates. In Cincinnati, for example, the City Charter Committee and independent candidates commonly oppose national party candidates. Third, local political-action groups may be active, but national political party organizations may be excluded by custom. This was the pattern for many years in Detroit, Dallas, San Francisco, and many other cities.
There is, however, one pattern in which all candidates are self-starters, plan their own campaigns, and arrange their own finances. In these cases, found in many small towns, there are no politicalaction organizations beyond those built around the individual candidate. This pattern may, therefore, be considered truly nonpartisan.
(4) A political ideology. In democratic nations, the political party is commonly seen as a device for mobilizing support for the filling of public office. Parties often have interest or class bases and are viewed as logical, necessary, and proper. In the United States, however, the political party has traditionally been viewed with suspicion. This suspicion has been especially prevalent among members of the middle classes, but Americans of all categories have long believed it is desirable to “vote for the man” rather than the party.
The scope and history of nonpartisan elections. After World War II, the bland political style of American suburbia reflected the traditional American preference for nonparty politics. The middle classes concentrated on rational discussion of issues and the consideration of “objective” data. They sought a “public interest” and believed this should be served, irrespective of party. They wanted decisions to be based upon the recommendations of experts, the avoidance of rowdy campaigning of the sort associated with nineteenth-century American politics, and a reasoned and informative appeal to voters. Nonaggressive, dignified contests were the goal, for they reflected middle-class preferences for order, respectability, dignity, and “responsible” (as distinguished from demagogic or “crowd-pleasing”) behavior. This ideology was manifested in nonpartisan local and judicial ballots, in social approval of split-ticket voting, in political amateurs as candidates for high office, in heavy dependence upon a professionally qualified civil service, and in minimizing the role of the political party in the democratic process.
The picture of the development of nonpartisan elections fades away gradually as its chronology is traced backward. In some cities and school districts of the nineteenth century, a “citizens’ caucus” was sometimes held to nominate candidates. All persons eligible to vote were welcome and the candidates then ran for office without party label, or under some innocuous title, such as the “Citizens’ Ticket.” Municipal reformers, beginning about 1890, sought to separate local from state and national elections and to separate issues and candidates. Gradually cities and other local units in many states began to have elections with no party designation on the ballot, following the pattern of the original Australian ballot, which was first used in the United States in Louisville in 1888. In the decade following 1910, many states established the nonpartisan ballot for municipal, judicial, and school elections. California, Minnesota, and North Dakota extended it to the county; and Minnesota, in 1913, and Nebraska, in 1935, put elections for the state legislature on the nonpartisan ballot. In the 1960s, probably more than one-half of the elective offices in the United States were filled using a nonpartisan ballot, including at least 85 per cent of all school elections and 65 per cent of municipal elections. The ballot form was especially popular in the suburbs of metropolitan areas and, above all, in cities using the council-manager form of government.
Nonpartisanship is useful as a concept in political-science research, providing careful distinctions are made among the various types and definitions. It is an important field for study because of its extensive use in local elections and widespread commitment to it as an ideology.
Recent research on nonpartisanship has centered on the comparison of partisan and nonpartisan voting patterns, the question of whether or not nonpartisanship contains a conservative bias, the interaction patterns between partisan and nonpartisan office holders, and the degree to which partisan and nonpartisan elections are insulated from one another.
The popularity of nonpartisanship remains undiminished among most governmental reformers in the United States, but it seems to be a uniquely American ideology. Elsewhere, the political party is considered an integral part of the political process and frank allegiance to a party is acceptable and even desirable.
Charles R. Adrian
Adrian, Charles R. 1952 Some General Characteristics of Non-partisan Elections. American Political Science Review 46:766-776.
Beard, Charles A. 1917 Political Parties in City Government: A Reconsideration of Old View Points. National Municipal Review 6:201-206.
Lee, Eugene C. 1960 The Politics of Non-partisanship: A Study of California City Elections. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.
Williams, Oliver P.; and Adrian, Charles R. 1963 Four Cities: A Study in Comparative Policy Making. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.