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What you need to know about Louisville’s likely switch to nonpartisan elections

Side view of Louisville's Metro Hall with City Hall in the distance
J. Tyler Franklin
Louisville Metro Hall is home to the mayor's office. City Hall, which is across Sixth Street, is where the Metro Council meets and works. Both branches of local government will become nonpartisan if House Bill 388 goes into effect.

Starting next year, elections for Louisville mayor and Metro Council are expected to become nonpartisan.

The move to nonpartisan elections means candidates for local office in Louisville will no longer be Democrats or Republicans, and their party affiliation will not appear on the ballot.

The Kentucky General Assembly approved the change last week, along with changes to local EMS services and police officer discipline. House Bill 388 is now awaiting final action from Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear. If he vetoes in, the legislature will have the opportunity to override his decision.

With big changes coming to Louisville’s elections and local politics, voters should know what to expect.

Runoff-style elections

Louisville’s switch to nonpartisan elections will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025, but voters won’t notice the changes until 2026. That’s when voters will choose the next mayor, as well as Metro Council members for all odd-numbered districts.

There will continue to be primary elections held in May. But rather than separate Republican and Democratic primaries, the mayoral race and each Metro Council district will have one, broader primary election. The top two vote-getters will then move on to a general election in November. It’s similar to how elections currently work in Lexington.

There are some exceptions: No primary will be held if a seat is uncontested, meaning only one person has submitted the paperwork to run. The primary will also be canceled if only two people are running for mayor or a single Metro Council district. Instead, those two candidates will face off in November.

The Kentucky General Assembly already removed local party officials from the process of filling vacancies on Metro Council in 2023. State law now requires a special election in most cases if a council member dies, resigns or is removed from office. Those special elections — which the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office estimated cost anywhere from $50,000 to $80,000 apiece — are open to any qualified candidate who files the proper paperwork to run.

Who wins with special elections?

While some local observers have speculated that House Bill 388 will benefit Republicans, it’s not clear that nonpartisan elections offer an advantage to either party.

Democrats currently have a near supermajority on Louisville Metro Council, 16 of 26 seats, but Republicans have been gaining ground in the city’s South End.

Brian Schaffner, a professor of civic studies at Tufts University, has researched nonpartisan elections for decades. He found that hiding party affiliation doesn’t necessarily benefit Republicans over Democrats.

“The party most likely to benefit from a shift to nonpartisan elections appears to be the minority party in the area where they are being implemented,” Shaffner said. ”This is simply because most people want to vote for candidates of the party they support, but when you remove that cue it makes it harder for them to do that.”

In other words, nonpartisan elections could benefit Democrats in a majority-Republican district, or vice versa.

D. Stephen Voss, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kentucky, said he doesn’t think residents will see much difference in the balance of power because of nonpartisan elections. In part, that’s because engaged voters can generally tell what party a candidate aligns with and candidates themselves won’t be sworn to secrecy.

“It really isn’t difficult for a candidate who wants to mobilize their side to give a couple of code words that basically lets everybody know who the Democratic candidate is and who the Republican candidate is,” Voss said. “More often than not, in terms of how elections get resolved, it doesn’t matter whether you get a partisan election or a nonpartisan election.”

Voss said candidates who don’t match up with either of the major parties could be encouraged by the switch to nonpartisan elections. And, in rare instances, they could win.

“The fact that nonpartisan elections … allow people to make a choice that isn’t for the Democrat or the Republican means that, every once in a while, nonpartisan elections really enrich the set of choices, enrich the electoral system,” Voss said.

At the same time, the absence of party identification can disadvantage some nontraditional candidates. Nonpartisan races increase the importance of name recognition, either through media coverage or paid advertising.

Opponents of nonpartisan elections say voters who don’t know anything about the candidates may take cues from the person’s name, including their ethnicity or whether they’re already in office.

One study Schaffner co-authored found local politicians running for reelection benefit most from nonpartisan races because they already have name recognition. Researchers also found this approach leads to lower voter participation.

Schaffner said removing parties from the ballot “increases the barriers to voting” and leads some people to not vote at all. He said this effect can be seen most clearly in states where some offices are partisan and others are nonpartisan.

That is what Louisville voters will face, with local elections omitting party information and state-level offices using partisan labels. Schaffner said this kind of environment can affect voters’ behavior.

“A significant percentage of people who turned out to vote will cast votes in all the elections that have labels on the ballot, but then will not vote at all in offices where the candidates do not have party labels,” Schaffner said.

What nonpartisan elections create, Schaffner said, is a system where “politics becomes more driven by the most educated and wealthiest portions of the public.”

Many of the changes to Louisville Metro Government included in House Bill 388 came from a commission that was put together in 2023 to evaluate the successes and failures of Louisville 2003 city-county merger. The commission voted 11-2 in favor of recommending the General Assembly institute nonpartisan local races in Louisville. At the time, many commissioners expressed concerns about how “divisive” politics had become, and said they saw nonpartisan elections as a way to address it.

Metro Council President Markus Winkler, a District 17 Democrat, said he doesn’t think the change will have the effect commissioners wanted, mainly because he doesn’t think Louisville politics was divisive in the first place.

Unlike in the Kentucky Legislature, Winkler said Republicans have leadership positions on every Metro Council committee and the legislation they propose always received a hearing.

“I think that argument is fundamentally wrong and does not accurately reflect how we work,” he said.

A new landscape for Metro Council members

The switch to nonpartisan elections will impact how Louisville lawmakers operate.

Right now, Metro Council is organized into a majority caucus of Democrats and a minority caucus made up of Republicans. These caucuses serve an important role, allowing council members an opportunity to meet before every regular meeting, discuss agenda items and ask questions about legislation that will come up for a vote. Each caucus also has a paid director whose responsibilities include organizing events and press conferences.

Once every council member is considered nonpartisan, that organizational structure no longer makes sense. Winkler said council members may organize themselves into multiple caucuses focused on shared values.

“It’s not dissimilar to what you see in [the U.S.] Congress where you’ve got all kinds of different caucuses that form of like-minded individuals that try to work on issues or legislation that align with their philosophical perspective,” he said.

Metro Council already has a Women’s Caucus, which was created last year.

Winkler said the biggest impact for Metro Council members is that they’re likely to see more and longer election seasons. In districts that are overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic, he said many races are essentially decided in the May primary. Moving forward, Metro Council members will have to campaign the entire year through the November general election, even if they’re facing someone registered in the same party.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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