Non-partisan democracy

Non-partisan democracy

Nonpartisan democracy (also no-party democracy) is a system of representative government or organization such that universal and periodic elections take place without reference to political parties.



Sometimes electioneering and even speaking about candidates may be discouraged, so as not to prejudice others' decisions or create a contentious atmosphere. Nonpartisan democracies may possess indirect elections whereby an electorate are chosen who in turn vote for the representative(s). (This is sometimes known as a 2-tier election, such as an electoral college.) The system can work with a first past the post electoral system but is incompatible with (partisan) proportional representation systems other than Single Transferable Vote.

A nonpartisan system differs from a single-party system in that the governing faction in a single-party system identifies itself as a party, where membership might provide benefits not available to non-members. A single-party government often requires government officials to be members of the party, features a complex party hierarchy as a key institution of government, forces citizens to agree to a partisan ideology, and may enforce its control over the government by making all other parties illegal. Members of a nonpartisan government may not share any ideologies (though in voluntary organizations, they of course may). Various communist nations such as China or Cuba are single-party nations although the Members of Parliament are not elected as Party candidates.

A direct democracy can be considered nonpartisan since citizens vote on laws themselves rather than electing representatives. Direct democracy can be partisan, however, if factions are given rights or prerogatives that non-members do not have.

In many nations, the head of state is nonpartisan, even if the prime minister and parliament are chosen in partisan elections. The heads of state are expected to remain neutral with regards to partisan politics.

There are two basic types of nonpartisan governments - de facto and de jure. De facto nonpartisan governments are ones where no laws prevent the formation of political parties, but no parties exist. Most of the de facto nonpartisan governments represent very small populations, such as in Niue, Tuvalu, and Palau. On the other hand, governments that outlaw political parties but do have elections are de jure nonpartisan systems. Several de jure nonpartisan national governments are Persian Gulf states, such as Oman and Kuwait. The legislatures in these Gulf state nonpartisan governments typically have advisory capacity only (i.e. - They may comment on laws proposed by the executive branch, but are unable to create real laws themselves.), but are partially or entirely elected by citizens.

Unless there are legal restrictions on political parties, factions within nonpartisan governments may evolve into political parties. The United States of America initially did not have enfranchised political parties, but these evolved soon after independence.


The democracy of ancient Greece was a nonpartisan, direct democracy where eligible citizens voted on laws themselves rather than electing representatives.

Historians have frequently interpreted Federalist No. 10 to imply that the Founding Fathers of the United States intended the government to be nonpartisan. James Madison defined a faction as "a number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." As political parties had interests which were adverse to the rights of citizens and to the general welfare of the nation, several Founding Fathers preferred a nonpartisan form of government.

The administration of George Washington and the first few sessions of the US Congress were nonpartisan. Factions within the early US government coalesced into the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties. The Era of Good Feeling, when the Federalist party collapsed, leaving the Democratic-Republican party as the sole political faction, was the United States' only experience with a single-party system.

The Non-Partisan League was an influential socialist political movement in the United States, especially in the Upper Midwest, particularly during the 1910s and 1920s. It also contributed much to the ideology of the former Progressive Party of Canada. It went into decline and merged with the Democratic Party of North Dakota in 1956. The Progressive Party of Canada and the United Farmers movement (which formed governments in the provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario) also acted on a similar philosophy. In the case of the United Farmers of Ontario while in power (1919–1923) the administration of Ernest Drury suffered lots of infighting as the result of conflicting views.

Because of their nonpartisan ideology the Progressive Party of Canada refused to take the position of the official opposition after the election of 1921 when they came in second place. Four years later they lost that position and their rural supporters began to move to the Liberal Party and CCF. Eventually the Progressive Party of Canada and the United Farmers movement faded into obscurity with most of their members joining the Liberal Party of Canada and the democratic socialist, Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, or present day New Democratic Party.)



In nonpartisan elections, each candidate for office is eligible based on her or his own merits rather than as a member of a political party. No political affiliation (if one exists) is shown on the ballot next to a candidate. Generally, the winner is chosen from a runoff election where the candidates are the top two vote-getters from a primary election. In some elections, the candidates might be members of a national party, but do not run as party members for local office.

Louisiana uses a nonpartisan blanket primary, also called a "jungle primary", for state and local offices. In this system, all candidates run against each other regardless of party affiliation during the primary, and then the two most popular candidates run against each other even if they are members of the same party. This form of runoff election weakens political parties and transforms a partisan election into a partly nonpartisan election. Once a candidate gets elected, the person maintains party affiliation and generally votes along party lines. Louisiana is the only place that uses a nonpartisan blanket primary.

Nebraska uses a single nonpartisan primary for the State Legislature but not for other state and local races.

Nonpartisan elections are generally held for municipal and county offices, especially school board, and are also common in the election of judges. In some nonpartisan elections, it is common knowledge which candidates are members of and backed by which parties; in others, parties are almost wholly uninvolved and voters make choices with little or no regard to partisan considerations.

While nonpartisan democracies can allow for a wide selection of candidates (especially within a no-nomination system whereby voters can choose any non-restricted person in their area), such systems are not incompatible with indirect elections (such as for large geographical areas), whereby delegates may be chosen who in turn elect the representatives.


Even if a government's executive officer or legislature is partisan, appointments of cabinet members, judges, or directors of government agencies, may be nonpartisan. The intent of appointing government officials in a nonpartisan manner is to insure the officers can perform their duties free from partisan politics, and are chosen in a fair manner that does not adversely affect a political party. Twelve US states use the Missouri Plan, and two use a variation of it, to choose judges in a nonpartisan manner. Several countries with partisan parliaments use nonpartisan appointments to choose presidents.


In nonpartisan legislatures, there are no typically formal party alignments within the legislature; even if there are caucuses for specific issues. Alliances and causes with a nonpartisan body are often temporary and fluid since legislators who oppose each other on some issues may agree on other issues. Despite being nonpartisan, legislators typically have consistent and identifiable voting patterns. Decisions to investigate and enforce ethics violations by government officials are generally done on the basis of evidence instead of party affiliation. Committee chairs and other leaders within the legislature are often chosen for seniority and expertise, unlike the leaders in a partisan legislature who are often chosen because of loyalty to a party.

Pros and cons


  • When compared to partisan systems which allow campaigning, political parties may provide poorer candidates greater resources and financing to compete against wealthier candidates. Standardized party rules may thus help equalize the campaigning field.
  • Citizens can not engage in vote pairing, straight-ticket voting, or other tactical voting methods (and need not engage in ticket splitting), resulting in an election outcome that is more likely to reflect the intent of the citizens.
  • Elected officials are not beholden to a party apparatus that got them elected, and are not subjected to party restrictions on how they may vote, nor must they posture for the sake of an opposition party (e.g., to show they are "tough" enough, etc.). Nonpartisan officials can therefore more readily represent the actual needs of their constituents. The lack of such requirements may also bring more principled individuals up the ranks, as they do not have to make assertions against their beliefs in order to demonstrate "party unity" or adhere to a platform against their principles.
  • As there are no political parties, there is no formal parliamentary Opposition which can use parliamentary tactics to delay or obstruct legislation.
  • All in the community (or at least perhaps those of a certain age, without a criminal record, etc.) are made eligible to vote and can be voted for. Thus, it is believed that a nonpartisan system also expands choice in elections beyond the limited range of choices as are otherwise presented to the public, who will at best have a limited role in partisan systems.
  • It is argued that the simple opportunity of being enabled to privately witness and assess the character and initiative of individuals within one's own community (especially where regular town meetings occur at the local level or, in indirect election systems, where nonpartisan delegates meet at a national level) provides a better picture of how capable a given individual is of providing future leadership and service.
  • Advocates argue that self-aggrandizement and promise-making inherent within partisan democracies would be minimized in such nonpartisan systems (and possibly eliminated entirely in at least the public level for non-electioneering systems).
  • Appeals to limited loyalties and divisiveness surrounding partisan elections (and their social consequences beyond the elections) may be averted, especially in no-electioneering systems. This was one of the rationales advanced in favor of Uganda's previous no-party system.
  • In nonpartisan systems without electioneering, financial dependence on third parties may be averted by those elected, who are unencumbered with such alliances and can make decisions according to their own conscience rather than the party or lobbies that supported them.
  • Such a system is considered by some to be also compatible with technocracy, whereby the solemn atmosphere may tend to elect candidates who may have great abilities and knowledge yet would not otherwise be inclined to participate in a media frenzy or take part in behind-the-scenes power-grabs.
  • Such systems are seen to invite a greater possibility of selection of traditionally-overlooked candidates from less self-promotional or less confrontation-accustomed populations, such as women or certain ethnic minorities.
  • Such systems are seen to avoid divisiveness within the population as a whole, as constituents are not provided an easy outlet for ascribing negative qualities in wholesale to members of another party or parties (e.g., for rejecting their own policy goals). This includes avoidance of indirect appeals by politicians or others to racism or nationalism (such as when one party tends to appeal disproportionately to one group) in order to garner votes or vent antagonisms. The public, whether at the level of society at large, or of neighborhoods and families, are saved from acrimony and constant debates based on party identity rather than discussing the merit of individual ideas (or engaging in other non-political activities).
  • Candidates have less reason to appease extremists within their party ranks in order to secure a plurality of the vote if the candidates are not constrained by party platforms.
  • Disparate groups do not need to form alliances with a Big tent party when they have strong disagreements with core principles of each other. This means political leaders can focus on major issues rather than on intraparty divisions.
  • Constituents are not pigeon-holed into thinking of issues according to one "party view". They may also be more willing to implement the policies decided upon democratically in their region, when they are not tempted to resist doing so were they to disfavor an incumbent's party.
  • The policies created by the government may better reflect the complexities of the situation when legislators are not constrained into left-vs-right views.
  • A non-party system places more responsibility, and therefore opportunity, on voters. The quality and integrity of the vote therefore improves.


  • Standardized party rules may insure all candidates conform to certain ideological policies; unlike candidates in a nonpartisan system who are not required to adhere to specific ideological views.
  • Voters may find voting on a party basis more convenient than learning the platforms of innumerable candidates. It may be easier for voters to simply learn a broad, philosophical agenda (i.e.: a party platform) towards governance / politics and support candidates who share it. Time and effort may be wasted trying to learn the individual opinions of each separate candidate for each separate office when it would be simpler for them to just identify on a common platform.
  • Critics will argue that during contentious elections, de facto parties will emerge anyways. For example, if a community's most pressing public debate was over whether or not to build a new library, it would be expected that some candidates would support the idea, and others not. Voters may thus make their decisions based solely on who is willing to identify as being on "their side" of the issue, even for officials whose office is not directly related to the decision, solely on the basis that "they think like me."
  • Many candidates may endorse the same or near identical policies so competing against each other wastes resources or splits the vote among them, thus allowing a less popular candidate with an unpopular agenda a win on plurality. Supporters of parties argue it is more sensible for a group of like-minded individuals to work together in favor of a commonly endorsed compromise candidate, rather than each person trying to get elected on their own. This is a problem for only certain types of election systems such as plurality voting system, but is not a problem for election systems that do not require people to split their vote, such as approval voting, Borda Count, or range voting.
  • In past nonpartisan systems, such as British Columbia prior to 1903, there was a certain level of regionalism and so-called pork barreling, where members would support a bill only if it somehow benefited their own local region. (Of course, the same may and often does happen in partisan systems, as the official remains accountable to the public, especially given that partisan systems often have high transparency and depend on would-be officials becoming known to the public through campaigns, thus making their voting pattern known to their constituents.)


National Governments

Very few national governments are completely nonpartisan, but nonpartisan political systems at the national level are not unheard of. Many national governments have nonpartisan offices even if their legislative branches are partisan. Constitutional monarchies have nonpartisan monarchs as their head of state. Parliamentary republics generally have nonpartisan, figurehead presidents.

Nonpartisan governments are much more likely in countries with small populations. Nauru, for example, has no political parties; its Parliament consists entirely in independent MPs, who form governing coalitions and opposition blocs through alliances of individuals.[1] The same is true in Tuvalu. No political parties exist; "MPs have very close links with their island constituencies and effort is directed towards balancing island representation in Cabinet" Other nonpartisan island nations are Pitcairn, Micronesia, Saint Helena, and Palau. Some are de-facto nonpartisan because no law forbids the formation of political parties, and the populations are small enough that factions are considered unnecessary. Political allegiances depend mainly on family and island-related factors.

In Niue, political parties have never played an important role. There is, at present, no political party, and candidates to elections therefore run as independents. The only party ever to have existed, the Niue People's Party, disbanded in 2003.

The United Arab Emirates is a de jure nonpartisan semi-democratic state since all political parties were outlawed. The Federal National Council (al-Majlis al-Watani al-Ittihadi) is the UAE’s parliamentary body and consists of 40 members, representing the Emirates, half appointed by the rulers of the constituent states and the other half elected to serve two-year terms, with only advisory tasks.

Political parties are illegal in the Gulf state of Kuwait. They have not been legalized since independence in 1961. Nonetheless, the constitution itself does not explicitly prohibit parties. Candidates for election to the National Assembly of Kuwait stand in a personal capacity. In practice, however, several political groups act as de facto parties.

Oman does not allow political parties and only holds elections with expanding suffrage for a consultative assembly. Though Oman is developing into a constitutional monarchy, political parties are not yet allowed in Oman. The previously influential opposition movement, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, is dormant today.

A nonpartisan democracy might take root in other sovereign nations, such as occurred in Uganda in 1986, whereby political parties were restricted by a constitutional referendum endorsed by the people of the country (this system did not have all of the features described above). During a subsequent referendum in 2005, over 92% of Ugandan citizens voted for the return of a multiple party system.

Until the mid-20th century, a Canadian politician's political affiliation was not shown on ballots at any level of government. The expectation was that citizens would vote according to the merit of the candidate, but in practice, party allegiance played an important role. Beginning in 1974, the name of the candidate's political party was shown on the ballot.

State, Provincial, or Territorial Governments

There are several examples of nonpartisan state or provincial governments. The nonpartisan system is also used in many US states for the election of judges, district attorneys and other officials.

The Swiss Cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden are also nonpartisan, direct democracies; while they have a partisan parliament, all laws have to be passed by "Landsgemeinde", an assembly of all citizens eligible to vote.

Twelve US states use the Missouri Plan, and two use a variation of it, to choose judges in a nonpartisan manner.

The Canadian territories of the Northwest Territories[2] and Nunavut[3] have nonpartisan democracies. The populace votes for individuals to represent it in the territorial assembly without reference to political parties. After the election, the assembly selects one of its number to form a government and act as premier. This system is in deference to the system of consensus government that predominates among the indigenous Inuit and other peoples of northern Canada.

The state of Nebraska in the United States has nonpartisan elections for its legislature because candidates are neither endorsed nor supported by political parties. However, its executive branch is elected on a partisan basis. It is the only state in the United States with a nonpartisan legislature.

The territorial government of American Samoa is completely nonpartisan. It has 21 nonpartisan members elected by consensus to its Territorial House and 18 nonpartisan members elected to the Territorial Senate. The Governor and Lieutenant Governor are both nonpartisan offices. However, its nonvoting member of the U.S. House is a Democrat.

The British territory of Falkland Islands has a completely nonpartisan government in that no political parties operate on the islands. All eight members of the Legislative Assembly are nonpartisan, as is the Chief Executive and the Governor.

Guernsey has a nonpartisan legislature. The States of Guernsey, officially called the States of Deliberation, consists of 45 People's Deputies, elected from multi- or single-member districts every four years.

Political parties played no official role in the Isle of Man before the 2006 elections and played a minor role in the 2006 elections. At the 2001 election for the House of Keys, the Manx Labour Party polled 17.3% of the vote and only 2 seats. The vast majority of seats at every election are won by independent candidates with no allegiance to any parties.

City or Local Governments

The municipal government of the City of Toronto, Ontario (Canada) is the fifth largest government in the country, governing a population of more than 2.7 million. It consists of a nonpartisan, directly elected council. The public may have a general idea of the candidates' political affiliations, but their parties have no official recognition or privilege in the functioning of City Council. Councilors are free to vote on each motion individually, freeing them from party discipline.

Many US cities and towns also have a completely nonpartisan government.[citation needed]

See also


Other Notes

  • Ware, Alan. Citizens, Parties and the State. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

External links

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