Krist Novoselic: Non-Partisan Elections For King County?


Clipped from a Life Magazine ad, circa 1947

Krist Novoselic blogs every Tuesday on the Daily Weekly. Read all his previous columns here.

County Councilman Pete Von Reichbauer is proposing changing King County elections to the non-partisan system.

He told the Seattle Times that a non-partisan election system, "will make elected offices more accessible ? and accountable," And with the change, ?elections will become more competitive.? Von Reichbauer, elected as a Republican, blamed some sort of political party "litmus tests" as holding back competition.

Qualifying or Nominating Primary?

The proposal is for replacing the current nominating primary with a qualifying primary.

The former is when the state controls a political party?s nomination process. The public pays for and administers the internal function of a private organization. This is known in Washington State as the Pick-A-Party primary.

Nearly a century ago, most states took control over nominations to remedy party boss / political machine domination of elections.

I mentioned public nominations and other election reforms of the early 20th century in my last post. I overlooked a widespread effort from that era: non-partisan elections.

Non-partisan elections fall under the qualifying primary system. With this type of election, all candidates can appear on a primary ballot that?s devoid of any party designation. (There?s no little D or R or whatever next to the candidates? name.) After votes are counted, the Top-Two candidates qualify to go onto the general election.

Same Old -- Same Old

Washington State has had local non-partisan elections for decades. (I refer to a recent one in a prior post.) Local elections are mostly low turnout affairs with many uncontested or uncompetitive races on the ballots.

In 2007, partisan elections for King County Council were, without exception, either uncontested or uncompetitive.

Taking the current local election dynamic in consideration, with a non-partisan King County Council, it's safe to say most of the established incumbents would still run unopposed or have token challengers.

However, in countywide races like the executive position, or on the trending competitive eastside, there can be more competition. Then it?s almost certain only a Republican and Democrat will square off in the Top-Two. The two major parties could still support their candidates. They?ll collect money, coordinate volunteers and buy media. The only place where they will not be is on the ballot as a party affiliation cue.

Real Competition

The Times said that Pete Von Reichbauer, doesn?t want to wear either party?s label when he runs for reelection. If that?s the case, he should run as an independent!

Instead of a useless change of the election system for King County, an independent candidacy can actually foster competition. In a three-way race, a candidate needs only 34% of the vote to get elected in the general. This lower threshold is a reasonable expectation for an experienced public servant like Mr. Reichbauer.

From a partisan perspective, increasing competition isn?t necessarily better. If Pete Von Reichbauer ran as an Independent, Republicans would still have to run a candidate to protect what has traditionally been their district. Recognizing an opening, Democrats would run their candidate in prospect of the conservative vote diluting between the former Republican Independent and the proper Republican candidate. Considering the Republican?s current ebb, another loss on the eastside of King County, to either an Independent Reichbauer or Democrat, would not look good.

Therefore, I won?t hold my breath on an independent candidacy.

Some are cynical about the non-partisan proposal. They say the Republicans hope to gain in King County elections for the long run. Somehow, in elections with open seats, the lack of party identification on the ballot will make King County Council races competitive.

All Party's Lose

If it gets on the ballot, it?s highly likely that King County voters will approve the change to non-partisan elections. The Pick-A-Party primary is very unpopular. The two major parties are perceived as foisting their system on voters. Regardless of any debate over the merits of change, if only in spite, antagonized voters will gladly zap party labels off the ballot.


It has been brought to my attention, from a friendly readers comment on David Postman?s Blog, that my geography is off. I have always thought of places like Auburn as east King County. But maybe I?m wrong on that? And sorry to the Federal Way folks! Also, my thinking lumps together districts 3, 6, 7 and 9: the mostly eastern part of the county which is held by the four Republicans on the council. Perhaps the term suburban would have worked better than eastside. Also, thanks to David Postman for the props!!!

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