Column: Christmas colors, political parties at the convention center

Unlikely to be resolved, even after a thousand years of diplomacy, is the ongoing bitter dispute over the best Christmas color. It’s green, some will say. But some stubborn souls will always insist that it’s red.

An occasional centrist will advocate for white, ignoring the fact that it’s not even a color.

Still others will try to frame the debate in terms of the mutually essential qualities that red and green each add to the Christmas palette.

Standing in contrast to the age-old Christmas-color controversy are at least six months of acrimony over governance of the convention center expansion in downtown Bloomington. That bitterness now seems to have been replaced with good will.

Instead of fighting over which side is more essential to the partnership, city and county officials are finishing out the year working on practical details of an interlocal agreement.

The agreement will supplement the statutory requirements associated with the formation of a capital improvement board (CIB). Signatories to the interlocal accord will be the mayor, the city council, the county council and the county board of commissioners.

Let’s think a minute about the composition of the seven-member CIB.

Those seven people will be key to the success of the convention center expansion project. In the shorter term, they’ll decide the site plan and direct the architect. Longer term, the CIB will eventually own and operate the facility.

It will be important that a group of people are selected who reflect a diversity of thought.

The group of seven are subject to a membership requirement under the state statute on CIBs. The statute says, “the creating ordinance must provide that no more than four (4) of the members be affiliated with the same political party.”

The partisan requirement for CIBs is a wicket made narrower by the planned approach for appointments. The idea is to allow the city and the county each to name three appointees, with the seventh determined by the first six.

I don’t think that satisfying the CIB’s partisan requirement will pose much of a challenge. But the requirement is also not much help in ensuring diversity of thought. For these purposes, partisan affiliation is close to meaningless in the Hoosier state.

What do I mean by that? Obviously, people do care which “party device” appears next to a candidate’s name on the ballot. Many voters base their choice purely on party affiliation, and vote a straight ticket.

So strong is the commitment to a one political party that some electors in Bloomington will vote a straight ticket, even when there are no candidates for their preferred party on the ballot. If you don’t believe that, ask independent Nick Kappas, who was a candidate for District city council in this November’s municipal election.

In District 3 there was just race on the entire ballot, with three candidates: Democrat Ron Smith and independents Kappas and Marty Spechler. The option to vote straight-ticket Democrat or Republican was required by law to appear on the ballot.

Even though no Republican candidate appeared on the ballot, 41 voters chose the option to vote straight-ticket Republican. That was almost twice Smith’s margin of victory. Smith received 23 more votes than Kappas.

Democrats are no different in their dedication to the straight ticket. In this year’s District 3 city council race, voting straight-ticket for Democrats was, of course, no more efficient compared to voting for the one Democrat on the ballot. Either option meant filling in exactly one oval. Yet 158 voters chose to fill in the straight-ticket oval.

But here’s a key fact: Voting a straight ticket does not, by definition, make you affiliated with a political party.

So, as important as political parties are for Hoosier voters, I maintain they are nearly meaningless for purposes of finding people to serve on the CIB. That’s because of a different state statute, which lays out how affiliation with a political party is defined:

[A]t the time of an appointment, one (1) of the following must apply to the
(1) The most recent primary election in Indiana in which the appointee voted was a primary election held by the party with which the appointee claims affiliation.
(2) If the appointee has never voted in a primary election in Indiana, the appointee is certified as a member of that party by the party’s county chair for the county in which the appointee resides. [Indiana Code 36-1-8-10]

I am not a municipal lawyer. But I understand the state statute to mean that for boards that have a partisan threshold, there’s no room at the inn for people with no party affiliation. That is, I think it means you have to have some party affiliation or other—and that affiliation can be established in exactly two possible ways.

The city of Bloomington appears to take a different view. Here’s a statement on the question from the city of Bloomington’s communications director, Yael Ksander: “Individuals who have never voted in a primary would generally be considered to have no party affiliation, and therefore such members would not count toward the limit on the number of individuals on a board who share an affiliation.”

The city’s interpretation of the statute gives room for independents to serve on boards and commissions that have a partisan limit. The city plan commission is an example of such a commission.

But “independent” is defined in a specific, statutory way. Running for office unaffiliated with any party doesn’t make you an “independent,” when it comes to board an commission appointments.

Marty Spechler ran for the District 3 city council seat this year as an independent. But he would count as a Democrat for purposes of partisan boards. That’s because he’s voted in every Democratic Primary since at least 2010. (Voting histories are public records.)

But Kappas, the other independent in the District 3 city council race, would count as an independent under the statutory definition. He’s never voted in a primary election. And he doesn’t have a signature from a county party chair supporting a claim to membership in some party.

That’s why Kappas doesn’t count towards any party’s tally for the five mayoral appointees to the city plan commission. Of the five mayoral appointees, no more than three can be affiliated with the same political party. (There are other members of the commission who aren’t appointed by the mayor.)

On Bloomington’s plan commission, Brad Wisler is the other non-Democrat who’s currently serving as a mayoral appointee. Wisler served on the city council, elected as a Republican, but for purposes of the definition, that doesn’t matter. What matters is his participation in Republican primaries. And Wisler’s primary election participation is Republican for the last decade, at least.

What about the Democrats who serve on the plan commission? Jillian Kinzie ran as a Democrat for city council in 2007, losing to Wisler by a single-digit number of votes. That doesn’t make her a Democrat. What does make her a Democrat is her participation in all the Democratic Party primaries for the last decade.

The other two mayoral appointments to the plan commission also count as Democrats. That’s because at the time of their appointment, the most recent primary in which they participated was the one for the Democratic Party. But if they’d been appointed just after the 2012 primary, they’d have counted as Republicans, because that’s the primary in which they chose to participate.

In 2012, some local voters who might typically align themselves with the Democratic Party, chose to vote in the Republican Party primary. They did that with the idea of helping Sen. Richard Lugar survive the primary challenge from Richard Mourdock. Lugar lost that primary, despite the support from whatever number of voters might have typically voted in the Democratic Primary.

So here in Indiana, as a practical matter, it’s possible to vote in whichever primary you like. But you have to decide which party’s primary you’re voting in and declare that when you show up to the polls. Your choice of party primary becomes a part of your public voting history.

That’s different from states like Michigan, where primary candidates for both parties are printed on a single ballot. Election records don’t include which side of the ballot you voted—because the votes on a ballot are secret. No, in Michigan you’re not allowed to vote in both primaries for the same race. And yes, some people do manage to disqualify their votes by voting both sides of the ballot.

Even if it’s possible in Indiana, as a purely practical matter, to choose whatever primary you want, there’s actually a state law that tries to regulate that.  Under state law, someone can vote in a party primary, if one of two conditions are met:

(1) if the voter, at the last general election, voted for a majority of the regular nominees of the political party holding the primary election; or
(2) if the voter did not vote at the last general election, but intends to vote at the next general election for a majority of the regular nominees of the political party holding the primary election; [Indiana Code 3-10-1-6]

Given the basic tenant of ballot secrecy, the first condition is unprovable, so we have to rely on a voter’s self-report about how they voted. And given that the contents of a person’s mind are not knowable to anyone else, for the second condition we’d also have to rely on a voter’s self-report about their intent.

So as a practical matter, despite the best efforts of Indiana’s General Assembly to try to regulate who votes in which primary, it’s a voter’s call to make. That means it’s pretty easy to make yourself either a Democrat or a Republican.

For the purpose of making appointments to a capital improvement board, that reduces the tally of partisan affiliations to mostly a clerical task. It will be important for city and county officials to make sure they comply with the letter of the state statute.

But the letter of the state statute doesn’t give much help in achieving a diversity of thought on the board. Those making the appointments will need to do more than just check for the statutorily required diversity in party affiliation.

Otherwise, we might just as well ask people: What’s the best Christmas color? We could then just count colors and make sure we don’t have any more than four greens or reds.

Merry Christmas.