Primary elections, one which Idaho holds this week, are in a sense first or preliminary elections—hence the name—but for many people they take on another meaning.
These are the elections in which major party—Republican and Democratic—nominees are chosen. But that’s not all they are. Non-partisan ballots will be filled out by people who do not choose to take part in those party contests—maybe because, well, they don’t consider themselves party members—and other choices remain to be made.
Judgeships in Idaho are non-partisan. That hasn’t always been true; Supreme Court justices were elected as Democrats or Republicans up through the thirties. And most local government offices—including city, school district, highway district and other offices—have long been nonpartisan. (Of the ten largest cities in the country, seven have non-partisan mayors, but New York, Houston and Philadelphia do choose by party.)
This seems like a reasonable point, in this time of party nominee selection, to consider whether all of Idaho’s partisan offices should be.
Some seem to make good sense that way. Legislative offices are logically partisan (only Nebraska runs counter to that) partly because of the organizing and issue development options it offers. Governors and lieutenant governors make sense as partisan offices, because the appointment powers and the need for overt political leadership.
The partisan need for some other offices is less clear, though in many cases the partisan leanings of candidates and office holders emerge anyway. All statewide executive branch offices in Idaho are partisan, but there are exceptions in other states. In Oregon, the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries (there’s no real equivalent for this in Idaho) is non-partisan, technically, though most recent elections have boiled down to candidates who clearly amount to party favorites. In Washington state, the superintendent of public instruction (similar to Idaho’s) is nonpartisan, though here again the party stance of the office holder usually isn’t a great mystery. In Utah, three offices—the commissioners of labor, insurance and agriculture and food—are non-partisan. In Nevada, the commissioners of insurance and labor are. In California, it’s the state auditor and the secretary for natural resources.
The distinctions between partisan and non-partisan offices often relate to how much a political philosophy plays—or should play—into the handling of the job. For a governor or legislator or member of Congress, that’s obviously going to be considerable. If you’re managing a more technical office where the job mainly consists of properly following the rules, where the input from political philosophy is more limited, maybe partisan considerations should be minor. And maybe the office shouldn’t be partisan.
In Idaho (as in a number of other states), county coroners are elected as partisan office holders. But what’s the difference between how a Republican or Democrat would handle the office? Yes, I can hear the jokes coming, but really: There shouldn’t be any difference.
Ask the same question, then, of a state or county treasurer, for example. Those are the kind of offices usually quietly humming along when they work well; is there a good reason for a party label for their administrators?
How about secretary of state, or county clerk, offices where the administrator has to properly handle the election contests of one party in opposition to another. True, as in other states, those offices have been handled generally quite well by partisan office holders. (Idaho long has been fortunate in that regard, and most other states have too.) But is there any reason they should be partisan? Might voter confidence be a little higher if they were non-partisan?
In a time of low confidence, it might be question worth asking.