Partisan vs. Nonpartisan Elections

Municipal election systems are determined by the nature of the council members' constituency and by the presence or absence of party labels on the ballot. With regard to the latter feature, there are two types of ballots for city council members. In partisan elections, the party affiliation of the candidate is indicated on the ballot, whereas in nonpartisan elections it is not. According to a 2001 survey, 77 percent of the responding cities have nonpartisan elections, and 23 percent have partisan elections.

Proponents of nonpartisan ballots suggest that:

  • Political parties are irrelevant to providing services.
  • Cooperation between elected officials belonging to different parties is more likely.

Proponents for partisan elections argue that:

  • The absence of party labels confuses voters; a voter who must choose from among a group of candidates whom she knows nothing about will have no meaningful basis in casting a ballot.
  • In the absence of a party ballot, voters will turn to whatever cue is available, which often turns out to be the ethnicity of a candidate's name.
  • Non-partisanship tends to produce elected officials more representative of the upper socioeconomic strata than of the general populace and aggravates the class bias in voting turnout, because in true non-partisan systems there are no organizations of local party workers to bring lower-class citizens to the polls on election day.

Listed below is the form of government for the thirty most populous cities in the United States, based on the most current U.S. Census projections. The table uses updated information from the member database at the National League of Cities.

Election Type of the 30 Most Populous Cities

Rank City Name State Election Type
1 New York NY Partisan
2 Los Angeles CA Non-Partisan
3 Chicago IL Partisan
4 Houston TX Partisan
5 Phoenix AZ Non-Partisan
6 Philadelphia PA Partisan
7 San Antonio TX Non-Partisan
8 Dallas TX Non-Partisan
9 San Diego CA Non-Partisan
10 San Jose CA Non-Partisan
11 Detroit MI Non-Partisan
12 San Francisco CA Partisan
13 Jacksonville FL Non-Partisan
14 Indianapolis IN Partisan
15 Austin TX Non-Partisan
16 Columbus OH Non-Partisan
17 Fort Worth TX Non-Partisan
18 Charlotte NC Partisan
19 Memphis TN Non-Partisan
20 Baltimore MD Partisan
21 Boston MA Non-Partisan
22 El Paso TX Non-Partisan
23 Milwaukee WI Non-Partisan
24 Denver CO Non-Partisan
25 Seattle WA Non-Partisan
26 Nashville TN Non-Partisan
27 Washington DC Partisan
28 Las Vegas NV Non-Partisan
29 Portland OR Non-Partisan
30 Louisville KY Partisan

 

Sources

MacManus, Susan A. and Charles S. Bullock, III. "The Form, Structure, and Composition of America's Municipalities in the New Millenium." In The Municipal Year Book 2003. Washington, DC: International City/County Management Association 2003.  

Ross, Bernard and Myron A. Levine. Urban Politics: Power in Metropolitan American, 6th edition. Florence, KY: Wadsworth Publishing, 2000.  

Svara, James H. Two Decades of Continuity and Change in American City Councils. Washington, D.C.: National League of Cities, September, 2003.