Ballots in Idaho’s general elections name the political parties of candidates for federal, state and county offices. But municipal elections are nonpartisan. A move is afoot to change that.
The Idaho Republican Party wants the Legislature to make local elections partisan. Identifying candidates’ political parties on the ballot would help voters choose candidates whose values they share, party leaders say.
Democrats say the reforms are just designed to tip more elections in an already heavily Republican state further in the GOP’s favor.
Leading the GOP effort is Ryan Davidson, chairman of the Ada County Republican Party.
Davidson is controversial within the party. He started out in Idaho politics as a marijuana activist. In the early 2000s, he chaired the Idaho Libertarian Party. Later he founded Idahoans for Liberty, which helped defeat Gov. Butch Otter’s choice for state GOP chairman in 2008.
After Davidson became the county chair last year, two of the three incumbents in west Boise’s all-Republican legislative District 15 blamed him in part for the November-election defeat of two of the incumbents by Democrats and for the razor-thin margin of victory for the third.
Davidson pressed the partisan-election case at a state GOP meeting last June in Pocatello. “The Democrats have absolutely, 100 percent, captured the city of Boise,” he said then, according to the Idaho State Journal.
In a video, Davidson said Democrats have stolen elections in Boise, and the Democratic Party has manipulated the nonpartisan system to gain power without having to disclose its candidates’ party identity.
He cited a 2017 Idaho Statesman article about Democrats deciding to regroup and focus on local races after the 2016 election cost them four seats in the Legislature.
“In nonpartisan races, when we’re not saddled with the ‘D,’ when we are able to run on our values, we have tremendous success in elections,” Rep. Mat Erpelding, Idaho’s House minority leader, told The Statesman at the time.
Davidson said that is evidence of the Democratic strategy. “They are admitting they have to hide the fact they are Democrats to get elected,” he said.
November’s losses contributed to a sense among both Democrats and Republicans that Ada County has turned purple. This year, Democrats flipped two of the three seats on the Republican-held Ada County Commission, as well as the two house seats in District 15. Every district wholly within Boise elected only Democratic state legislators, although those on the edge that encompass areas outside the city remained red.
Davidson has yet to line up a legislator to introduce a bill. He said Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, may sponsor one. DeMordaunt did not respond to several requests for comment over email and voicemail and to her secretary.
Making party alignment clear helps voters make informed decisions, Davidson said. “City councils deal with laws every bit as controversial as the Legislature,” he told the Statesman in an interview.
Local city council members, even Republicans, do not all share Davidson’s enthusiasm for the change. Several city council members from Nampa, Meridian and Boise said they don’t see the work they do at the local level falling within partisan lines.
“As a city councilman, I have been elected to represent everyone of every party of every affiliation,” said Nampa City Councilman Victor Rodriguez, a Republican, in a phone interview.
Boise City Council member Holli Woodings, the 2014 Democratic nominee for secretary of state, asked, “Is this something that voters really want, or is this a partisan solution in search of a problem?”
Sometimes, though, even nonpartisan city councils find themselves confronting issues that tend to be partisan on a national level. For instance, the Nampa, Meridian, and Boise councils have considered adding ordinances to protect LGBT citizens from discrimination, a cause generally favored by Democrats nationally but sometimes resisted by Republicans. Ordinances have passed in Boise and Meridian but not in Nampa.
And each year they consider whether to raise taxes — a decision that often signals party ideology, said Meridian City Council Vice President Luke Cavener, a Republican, in an interview.
“Tax policy is tied with the national party,” Cavener said. “The Republican Party is associated with fiscal conservatism.”
Cavener said he is undecided about partisan elections. “If making them partisan benefits the voter I’m open to learning more, but there is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up trash,” he said.
By making elections partisan, candidates who might not have the funds to run alone could access party resources and networks, allowing more people to enter a race, Davidson said. City council members interviewed by the Statesman said they sometimes have made use of Democratic or Republican networks or email lists but have not typically received money from the parties.
Frank Terraferma, executive director of the Idaho Republican Party, stands by the proposal. “It’s not a question of advantaging a party but getting people this information,” he said.
The nonpartisan nature of municipal elections is a legacy of the Progressive era, which saw a variety of reforms meant to combat the one-party rule in cities. Those reforms also saw many cities move their municipal elections from November to the spring, to encourage voters to select individual candidates rather than voting for their party down the ballot.
While Davidson said partisan elections would make the elections more honest, that was the same reason Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson gave in advocating the nonpartisan model a century ago. Both presidents rose to power on a Progressive wave in American politics. The National League of Cities says three quarters of U.S. cities use nonpartisan elections.
Questions remain about what partisan local elections would look like. Would there be primaries? A resolution passed by the Idaho Republican Party in June called for them, but Davidson said he is still working out what the final changes could look like.
Jackie Groves, chair of the Ada County Democrats, noted that in cities where one party dominates, the election would effectively play out in the primary, “disenfranchising the minority.”
Elect by districts?
Davidson is promoting a second bill, too: to elect city council members by districts in cities of 50,000 or more people. Of the four Treasure Valley cities meeting that population threshold — Boise, Meridian, Nampa and Caldwell — none do that.
In Boise, electing by district could give Republican candidates a better chance of winning at least one council seat than if they had to go before the entire city. And in otherwise conservative Nampa, it could potentially mean a Democratic seat in North Nampa.
Districted municipal elections exist throughout the country. In cities of over 200,000 people, nearly half use districts, according to the National League of Cities.
Davidson already has a sponsor for this bill: Rep. Thomas Dayley, R-Boise. Dayley represents red District 21, which straddles parts of unincorporated Ada County and West Boise.
Dayley told the Statesman in an interview that his constituents want better representation on the Boise City Council. He said he originally floated the idea in the Legislature two years ago, and that as Idaho’s cities grow, the question of representation has become pressing.
Dividing large cities by district could improve campaigning, too, Dayley said: “This would be much less cumbersome for someone running.”
Woodings, the Democratic Boise city councilwoman, said districts could influence council members to favor their neighborhoods and “diminish the role of a council to benefit the greater good of the city.”
But Nampa and Meridian, both with populations about 100,000, are thinking about how to ensure citywide representation on their councils as their populations grow.
In Meridian, candidates must run for particular seats, but the seats are not tied to districts. In 2018, the City Council voted down a proposal to elect the three top vote-getters instead. Several comments sent to the city supported districting, though, the Idaho Press reported.
Many Meridian residents already think, incorrectly, that their council is elected by district.
“We often get asked in the mayor’s office ‘Who’s my council member?’” wrote Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd in an email to The Statesman.
Nampa City Councilman Darl Bruner said he is lobbying for the city to create two districts. “I am in favor of a hybrid with some seats being at large and some by district,” he wrote in an email to the Statesman.
Nampa Mayor Debbie Kling said she would consider districting but wants the Legislature to leave that decision to cities.
Likewise, Jess Harrison, executive director of the Association of Idaho Cities, said she has just begun to discuss the issue with member cities, but the association thinks the decisions “should be left to local communities rather than done at a statewide level.”
Davidson said city council members are too self-interested to decide.
“Anyone elected under a certain process doesn’t want to change that process,” he said. “We need to take it out of cities’ hands and put it into debate.”
Shelby Scott, political director of the Idaho Democrats, questioned Republicans’ motives.
“All of these moves have the same idea in mind, which is more control for the Republican Party,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the 2018 proposed changes to Meridian’s city council election system. The proposal was to elect the top-three vote getters rather than elect city council members to seats.