If ballots in Akron lost their party labels for City Council and mayoral races, Democrats would need to spend more time and money calling residents, standing outside polling locations or mailing out pamphlets to keep their winning streak alive.
“If we had to do that every four years to educate voters in Akron, that would suck up tremendous amounts of resources,” said Summit County Democratic Party Chair Tom Bevan, who sent out an email last week asking a group of concerned Democrats to call City Council in an effort to kill a proposed charter amendment that would create nonpartisan elections in Akron.
There appears to be enough opposition on council to keep the change, which requires voter approval, off the ballot this fall. But another proposal to allow independents to vote in primary elections is taking shape.
And if supporters of nonpartisan elections somehow get enough signatures to put their proposal on the ballot without council's approval, Bevan said he would launch a campaign using funds dedicated for other races this fall, like Summit County Councilman David Hamilton’s bid for Akron municipal judge.
That would play into the hands of the Republican Party, whose leadership in Summit County has openly called for nonpartisan elections in Akron, a town where Democrats have won every mayoral and council seat for more than two decades.
The charter amendment for nonpartisan elections offered last Monday by Councilman Bruce Kilby needs support from a supermajority of nine on Akron City Council before it would appear on the ballot this November. The plan is guaranteed to save money by eliminating an entire primary election. In an era of increasing political polarization, supporters say it would encourage broader participation in elections.
In protesting one-party dominance and that extreme political polarization, Councilman Bob Hoch denounced the Democratic Party last week while voicing support for nonpartisan elections.
Four members of Akron council — President Margo Sommerville, Vice President Jeff Fusco, Mike Freeman and Rich Swirsky — have voiced opposition or concern about holding nonpartisan elections. Bevan said Tara Samples is the fifth "no" vote needed to stop the charter change, for now.
Samples spoke with Bevan and others this past week. She said Sunday that she opposes eliminating the primary election. Instead, she'll offer a resolution urging state lawmakers and the secretary of state "to allow independent/nonpartisan voters to be able to vote in primaries and vote for candidates, not just issues, without having to declare a political party."
Most Summit County municipalities and major cities in Ohio already hold nonpartisan local elections per state guidelines. Voters there can still identify as Republicans or Democrats by participating in state or federal nominating contests, like presidential and gubernatorial primaries. The plan expected to fail Monday would eliminate Akron’s May primary. Four-year contests for City Council and mayor would be decided in a single, nonpartisan November election, in which any candidate with 50 valid signatures could run.
Councilman Donnie Kammer's name is on the list of elected officials Bevan asked his members to call. He and Bevan exchanged voicemails last week but haven’t talked.
Kammer, who hasn't seen Samples' legislation but is open to tweaking the nonpartisan election plan, said he plans to support Kilby's proposed charter amendment. "I'm leaving this one up to the voters," he said.
There's good in knowing who’s a Democrat or Republican on the ballot, said Kammer. But he’s heard from too many constituents who either begrudgingly registered or refused to register as Democrats to support his primary victory in May.
“I believe this country is really facing some new changes and obstacles in terms of following party lines,” said Kammer. “It seems like, nationally, there’s a lot of unhappy people who are Democrats and Republicans. They’re just unhappy.”
Polling by Pew Research Center is tracking record-high division between the two major parties. That rancor is fueling the debate to remove partisanship from local elections. Bevan blames gerrymandering and President Donald Trump.
Parties, including Democrats in Summit County and Republicans at the state level, have used the political map-making technique of gerrymandering to create safe voting districts in which incumbent Democrats and Republicans must adopt or address more extreme partisan views to survive primary elections.
“We are definitely, in my opinion at least, in an environment that is more partisan than at any time in my lifetime, and having a president like Donald Trump increases that partisanship,” said Bevan. Democrats polled by Pew said they feel frightened or insulted by the president’s rhetoric. They find little respect or inspiration from his comments. Republicans said Trump’s statements make them feel entertained, hopeful, proud, happy and informed.
Partisan elections, for now, have become a "gimme" for Democrats in Akron. There has been less of a need, outside of judicial races, to engage voters in this reliably liberal blue town. The debate over partisan elections shows that “maybe Democrats need to work a little harder in Summit County,” Kammer said.
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org 330-996-3792.