2/12/2021 7:39:00 AM Commissioners Back Partisan School Board Elections
Wayne Howard Staff Writer
At their meeting February 1st, Lincoln County Commissioners unanimously passed a resolution favoring making local school board elections partisan.
Their decision comes as no real surprise. They were, we were told by one commissioner, under pressure from GOP county chairman Fred Jarrett to pass that resolution. Given that all of the commissioners are Republican, we weren't surprised that they passed it. We were surprised that it was unanimous and included the newest commissioner, Cathy Davis, former chair of the Lincoln County Board of Education.
The reason for partisan elections seems obvious: it's to make sure that no Democrat will ever again be elected to any office in Lincoln County.
Davis, when we questioned her after the vote, said she didn't think the outcome of the 2020 election, which saw a second Democrat, Myra Heavner, elected, would have been any different had the election been partisan. We laughed at that notion and for obvious reason: in 2016, two very qualified Democratic candidates, Elaine Jenkins and Neil Underwood, both lost in the election for County Commissioners. They didn't just lose--they were overwhelmed; they lost by a 70% to 30% margin. That, of course, is what happens to every Democrat who runs for office in Lincoln County.
Our fear--and we think it well-founded--is that partisan elections won't just mean no Democrat need bother to run; it also means that unaffiliated candidates will also be blocked from running.
Since the GOP became the majority party in the General Assembly in 2011, more North Carolina counties' school board elections have been made partisan every year. From 2012 to 2017, according to Education Week, more than a quarter of the state’s 116 local school boards were switched from nonpartisan races to ones in which candidates are identified by party affiliation.
The sad truth is that if you ask most Lincoln Countians (much like those who live in other area counties) most people couldn't name the members of their school boards--or their county commissioners. A vast majority of voters tend to mark names on ballots based not on qualifications but on name recognition (at best) and solely on party affiliation (at worst).
We believe in government 'of the people, by the people, and for the people' and we believe that non-partisan elections are by far a better way to choose those who serve in local positions. We editorialized last November that we believe City of Lincolnton elections should be non-partisan (but that's a different subject).
We have little doubt that Lincoln County representative Jason Saine, armed with a unanimous resolution from our county commissioners, will introduce the legislation to change Lincoln County's Board of Education elections to partisant. That move will limit the potential pool of candidates because of logistical issues like increased cost of campaigning, challenges standing out in a political field of candidates, and the desire to avoid the political fray. Such challenges are more likely to discourage minority candidates, and talk about taxation without representation, Lincoln County has never had an elected black official. The City of Lincolnton never had until Mary Frances White was elected to the City Council in 2018. While Lincoln County Schools have a significant number of Hispanic and African-American students, no Hispanic or African-American member has served on the Board of Education since the schools were integrated in the 1960s.
The biggest problem we see is the first part of that epithet from Lincoln: "of the people." More people have registered as unaffiliated rather than Democrat, Republican, or other party in each of the last five years. It's a growing trend as a lot of voters, especially younger voters, disdain partisan politics.
Under current North Carolina election laws, unaffiliated voters can't get their name on a ballot without securing thousands of signatures from eligible voters. That means that unless you owe your allegiance to a political party, if this change is made, you can forget about running for school board. It also means that school board members will be subject to pressure from party executives.
In the 2020 election, the local GOP executive board chose to back a slate of candidates, actually opposing some registered Republicans who were running for seats. They even chose one new candidate who was seeking to replace a previously elected GOP member. As we said last November, we believe it's time for both the Democrats and Republicans to get their noses out of the non-partisan school board election. Making it partisan will only increase their involvement.
Board of Education members should be elected because they are both qualified and have the interest of our students and educators at heart--not because of their political affiliation.
While there's still time, let Representative Saine and State Senator Ted Alexander know if you agree with us on this matter.
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