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Bill in Ky. legislature would make city and school board elections partisan

Kevin Bratcher holds papers at desk during committee meeting.
J. Tyler Franklin
Rep. Kevin D. Bratcher, R-Louisville, presents House Bill 3, a bill geared toward juvenile justice reform before the House Judiciary Committee.

While most city council and school board elections are nonpartisan in Kentucky, a bill filed in the 2023 session could change that.

Senate Bill 50 would require offices like mayor, city council, county commissioner and the school board to have a Republican or Democrat label next to each candidate on the ballot.

Though cities like Louisville and Hopkinsville have partisan mayoral and city council races, that’s not the case for most of Kentucky.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown and sponsor of the measure, said adding partisan affiliations would give voters a clearer choice.

“I think these races should be partisan in the spirit of transparency so that voters have the most information they can have on the candidate. The best way to know where a candidate stands on the issues, is to know what party affiliation they assign themselves,” he said.

Except for six cities, all city council, mayoral and school board elections are nonpartisan in Kentucky, meaning officials are not affiliated with a specific political party.

Republican Rep. Thomas Huff from Shepherdsville filed a similar measure last year, but it didn’t advance in the legislature..

Thayer said without partisan tags, voters often elect candidates who have an “opposite philosophy.”

“It’s really bad on school boards in particular, with people with completely different ideologies than the people they represent. Republicans in these districts do not want to be represented by Democrats. We expect city councils and school boards in rural areas are probably going to get some more conservatives and in suburban areas, we’re going to be seeing more hotly contested races,” Thayer said.

Thayer also said making local elections partisan would naturally give Republicans a significant edge in local elections since there are more GOP registered voters in the state.

After years of Democratic control, Republicans have surged into Kentucky political offices in recent years. GOP lawmakers now sit in 80 of the 100 seats in the state House and 31 of 38 seats in the Senate. Republicans also hold 93 of the 120 important county judge-executive posts as well.

Democrats argue Thayer’s bill is a new attempt by Republicans to dominate local posts.

Democratic Rep. Rachel Roberts, of Newport, said the bill is an attempt to bring national hyperpartisanship to local elections.

“Those national issues don’t necessarily lay out over your local elections,” Roberts said.

Roberts argued that adding political affiliations to local elections will only widen divisions in places like local school board meetings, which were riven with partisan issues during the coronavirus pandemic.

She said voting in a local election needs to be viewed more as “a job interview” where voters are hiring candidates. And with partisan markers, people will pay less attention to how qualified candidates actually are to do the job, Roberts said.

“Whether this benefits Republicans more or not, I think we really need to focus on training constituencies to vote person over party. We are hiring the most qualified candidate for a job. They are running our school system, they are managing our state’s multi-billion dollar budget. Just because they belong to your party, doesn’t mean they’re qualified or capable to do the job,” she said.

Kentucky League of Women Voters’ President Fran Wagner said political party affiliations could provide more information about local candidates, but that has little to do with candidate performance.

“There’s an old saying that potholes aren’t Republican or Democrat, and while making local elections partisan is a quick way for a voter to make a decision, it’s a shorthand and makes voting on a lengthy ballot paper easier, you’re not voting on how the city should be run, you’re voting on ideology,” she said.

Wagner cautioned against making school board elections partisan.

“School board races should be non-partisan and not voted on on the basis of political parties. It would bring politics to the education arena where it shouldn’t be there. The league absolutely stands against that,” she said.

Josh Shoulta, communications director for the Kentucky School Board Association, said partisan politics in school board elections would interfere with the day-to-day business of running public schools.

“School board members will have to be forced to contend with issues in the national media but aren’t really relevant to local schools in Kentucky. Folks who run for school board have a personal active interest in seeing the success of their local schools,” he said.

The bill was assigned to the Senate State and Local Government Committee in early January but hasn’t yet received a hearing.

Divya is LPM's Race & Equity Reporter. Email Divya at dkarthikeyan@lpm.org.

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