This November, King County residents will vote on Initiative 26, which would prevent candidates for county executive, assessor, and council seats from listing their party affiliation on the ballot. Results from the primary election show voters favoring the measure with 64 percent of the vote, which will (once the election is certified in September) allow the initiative to continue to the general election. Similar bills have been proposed in the county council over the past 15 years, but each has failed. This time, Council Member Pete von Reichbauer's chief of staff, Joe Fain, adapted a bill that died in committee in 2007 and paid signature gatherers nearly $150,000 to get the petition on the ballot. It now appears headed for victory.
There is a big difference in the "nonpartisan" measure this time: a campaign bankrolled by hundreds of thousands of conservative dollars.
The initiative sponsors, Citizens for Independent Government, herald I-26 as a tool to stop interparty bickering and field a larger pool of candidates. Opponents say the measure would favor Republicans in a majority Democratic county.
"When people look and see no party labels, it will have the same effect as elections for judges," says Ian Stewart, vice president of EMC Research, a polling firm that specializes in local elections. "People don't know who that is, so they skip the race." To increase name recognition and show voters their political values, he says, candidates would have to spend thousands of dollars on campaign mailers. "That means people with money will influence the process even more," he says.
The three leading I-26 contributors—whose donations make up nearly 90 percent of the campaign's $352,330—are big donors to the Republican Party, according to reports from the Public Disclosure Commission. For example, John Stanton, who contributed $121,500 to I-26, also donated $5,700 to Dino Rossi's two gubernatorial campaigns. He has also contributed $300,700 to the state Republican Party since 2002 and gave $30,750 last year to the King County Republican Central Committee. Stanton's wife, Theresa Gillespie, matched his contribution to I-26 with another $121,500, and all other partisan contributions in her name were made to Republican candidates.
Fain, the initiative's sponsor, says the campaign's backers aren't pushing a specific political ideology. The funders "give to a lot of causes," he says. He claims the measure will create "more competitive elections, with more candidates fielding for office because parties aren't holding down potential challengers to incumbents." He cites the success of Seattle's nonpartisan elections, which historically cost challengers less to run than the challengers to county incumbents.
Council Member Larry Phillips sees I-26 as a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. After studying the history of council votes over the past 10 years, Phillips found that 95 percent of votes were unanimous, and only 25 votes split on partisan lines, indicating that the law's premise—too much partisanship at the county level—is flawed. Furthermore, he says cloaking a candidate's political leanings "hides from voters basic information they should have."
If I-26 did make it easier for Republican challengers to oust Democratic incumbents, it could eventually lead to a conservative majority on the county council. Conservative members of the council, Phillips says, have historically favored property rights over environmental preservation and worked to defeat transit measures that raise taxes.
Two more council members—both Democrats, naturally—quietly oppose the initiative. Larry Gossett has debated the issue before groups such as the Municipal League and has sent e-mails decrying the measure from his personal e-mail account. When asked, Council Member Dow Constantine says the measure would be bad for the county. The harm, he says, is that voters may not realize until after an election that an official's "political positions may not be shared by the majority of the people in their district."