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Nonpartisan elections take sharply partisan turn

Published August 2, 2013 10:46 am

Salt Lake County • List of hopefuls on party's website called "new low" by Dems.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Municipal elections in Utah are supposedly nonpartisan, where candidates do not run under a party label. But the Salt Lake County GOP is making an end run around that to openly promote registered Republicans.

On its website, slcogop.com, the party lists candidates for city councils and mayor who are registered Republicans — the first such attempt in memory to identify party leanings of so many people in municipal elections.

It initially listed any party affiliation it determined for 124 candidates in 16 cities, and said 89 are Republican, 35 are officially unaffiliated, 19 are Democrats and one is a member of the Constitution Party. However, after inquiries Thursday by The Salt Lake Tribune, Chad Bennion, chairman of the county party, said leaders decided to revamp the site, and it now lists Republicans only.

"We were getting all kinds of calls from people wondering if certain individuals were Republican," Bennion said. "So we posted the list of people we have confirmed are Republican. If we missed anyone, we're happy to make modifications."

Bennion said the party is also providing Republican candidates with a variety of lists — including names of those who attended GOP caucus meetings — to help with their campaigns but is not donating any money. "As chairman of the Salt Lake County Republican Party, it is my job to promote Republicans for elected office wherever they are running," Bennion said.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis blasted the Republican listing of candidates' party affiliation.

"We abhor this as a practice and call on the Republicans to stop doing this and apologize. This is a new low," he said.

"We have a long-valued, treasured history of municipal elections being nonpartisan. By infusing this into partisanship, [it] turns our municipal elections into the snarky filth of Washington, D.C., and that cannot be good for cities, municipalities or the state of Utah," said Dabakis, who is also a state senator.

Bennion said he plans no apologies.

"We're just providing assistance to those who we know are Republicans. In some races there are multiple Republican candidates, and we are providing them the same information," he said. "We're doing that because we feel Republicans as elected officials are great and serve the people well."

The nonpartisan ballot began as a reform pushed by the Progressive movement in the early 1900s and spread to most U.S. cities.

The intent "was, and still is, to remove party cues from a voter's decision, thereby causing the voter to seek out other information about a candidate," according to an article on the history and effect of such ballots in the Political Research Quarterly by Brian Schaffener, Matthew Streb and Gerald Wright.

"Progressives believed that the party machine system prominent around the beginning of the 20th century limited direct government by the people. The goal of the Progressives was to remove party politics from the local level, which would cripple the machines' powers and make governments more responsive to citizens," the article said.

However, Bennion said, nonpartisanship in local races is something of an illusion.

"There's always been party involvement, whether it was on anybody's radar or not."

In contrast to the GOP actions, the Utah Democratic Party this week sent an email noting that early primary voting has begun and urged Democrats to vote. It said, "Democrats win by numbers, so let's boost those numbers and get folks with Democratic values in these municipal seats." But it did not identify the party leanings of any candidates.