Split vote makes Albemarle elections non-partisan

Published 3:37 pm Friday, September 20, 2019

In a 4-3 decision, Albemarle City Council moved ahead Monday with plans to revise its municipal charter to adopt non-partisan status for future city elections.

The issue was split on both sides of the council’s current political affiliations. Democratic council members Bill Aldridge and Martha Sue Hall joined Republicans Martha Hughes and Chris Whitley in supporting the measure. Casting dissenting votes were Democrat Dexter Townsend and Republicans Chris Bramlett and Shirley Lowder.

According to the UNC School of Government, only seven of the state’s 552 municipalities select mayor and city council by partisan vote. With Albemarle’s departure from the group, only Asheville, Charlotte, Kinston, Lincolnton, Sanford and Winston-Salem will remain.

Officials voting in favor of the change expressed the need to consider “person over party” as a primary concern.

In addition, the growing number of unaffiliated voters, and the difficulty an unaffiliated candidate encounters were cited.

A petition with 4 percent or more of registered voters in the city must be compiled and certified if a candidate wishes to run unaffiliated.

“I’ve always felt that local elections should be non-partisan since most local issues we deal with aren’t partisan or political matters,” Whitley said. “With one-third of Albemarle voters unaffiliated and only about seven cities in North Carolina out of over 500 still being partisan, I think it’s time we change to allow all citizens to participate in our electoral process.”

Hall added, “Party politics do not have a place in local government. It’s about providing the best practices for the entire city…voters need to ‘know the person’ not ‘the party,’ and educate themselves on issues that are relevant to local government.”

Aldridge feels the move is a step forward for Albemarle.

“Partisan local elections are a thing of the past,” he said. “Albemarle is the only municipality in the county holding partisan elections, and one of only a handful in the state. I can understand partisan elections at the state and federal levels, because the issues are so much more complex. It’s time for Albemarle to move forward and make this change.”

Townsend, while conceding that some studies show non-partisan elections as beneficial, expressed concern that implementing them could mute the voices of the city’s black community.

“It is my belief that although statistics and data appear to make non-partisan elections more favorable and economically feasible, I don’t believe it’s the best fit for our community,” Townsend said. “I’ve lived here long enough to develop a great sense for hidden agendas, and knowing the voting history during municipal elections combined with the mindset of those who implement political trickery, I had no choice as the only minority representative on the council but to vote in opposition.”

Townsend emphasized that his concerns are centered on ensuring fair representation while honoring the legacy of those political leaders preceding him.

“In no manner should my position on this matter be deemed personal, but in light of the measures some of our community leaders took back in the early 1980s to ensure African-Americans had a seat at the table, we can’t chance jeopardizing the political structure for future generations.”

Bramlett, who was elected to city council as a Republican, felt he owed it to those who had supported him in the past to continue the partisan system.

“If I had voted otherwise, I believe it would have betrayed their confidence,” he said.

He acknowledged an understanding of why most towns similar in population to Albemarle choose to elect officials without partisan attachment.

“I can see why so many cities our size hold elections in a non-partisan format,” he said. “Most of the issues we deal with, things such as police, fire protection, zoning and such, are not political.”

Lowder, who also opposed the move, felt the four who voted in favor of the charter change did so with re-election in mind.

“First and foremost, I don’t believe there is a non-partisan person on this council,” she said. “We are made up of Democrats and Republicans, and any attempt by any member to change that is an attempt to win the next election.”

She also took exception to the statement that council issues are not as complex as those faced by state and national officials.

“The hours we put in weekly prove that our issues are complex,” Lowder said. “If non-partisan is the best way, why aren’t county commissions, senators and congress set up that way?”

Toby Thorpe is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News & Press.