Sheboygan’s local elections are nonpartisan, but Democratic and Republican parties still play a role. Here’s how.
Maya Hilty Sheboygan Press March 24, 2022
SHEBOYGAN - People who vote in local elections can have powerful sway because not many people do it.
Last year, only 27% of registered voters in Sheboygan County, about 20,000 people, voted in spring elections.
In comparison, 92% of registered voters, about 66,000 people, voted in the prior November 2020 election.
This April, voters will elect the entire Sheboygan County Board, among other school board, city council and town board members. Although these elections are nonpartisan, activating and educating voters are priorities for the county Republican and Democratic parties.
The Republican Party of Sheboygan County is helping the campaigns of several candidates who share conservative values, such as maintaining personal freedoms, party chairman Russ Otten said.
The county Democratic Party is focused on sharing information about voting and candidates from nonpartisan organizations, party chairwoman Maeve Quinn said.
While both parties have members running for office, the GOP’s activation of candidates this spring is most evident, with the majority of contested seats on the county board featuring new challengers who are highlighting conservative issues.
Here’s how the parties have been preparing for the April 5 election and how the party chairpeople view nonpartisan elections.
Activated by local issues, Sheboygan County Republican Party is helping in campaigns
Recent issues on the county board, Sheboygan city council and school boards have activated the conservative base and county Republican Party, Otten said.
For example, more than 100 people protested an ordinance the county board proposed (but eventually dropped) in August 2020 they felt wrongly authorized a nonelected official, the county health officer, to impose penalties on people for violating public health orders.
The near-unanimous election of an activist and executive director of a progressive organization to the Sheboygan city council by other council members last October was another controversial issue for conservatives, Otten said.
On the school board, masking and critical race theory are examples of issues that have driven people to get involved, he said.
In response, the Republican Party has recruited people for local office and helped them learn how to become candidates, Otten said.
The party has hosted several events this year where people could meet conservative candidates.
“That really puts our group of freedom-fighter candidates out there for everyone to see,” Otten said. “We’re trying to educate people as to those candidates we believe share our values.”
He added: “We did not set any kind of a platform for them to sign off on. That’s not what we’re about. We’re about freedom fighting — people who are wanting to put their views into action.”
One example of an issue some conservative candidates are rallying around is opposition to proposed wind turbines in Sheboygan County.
“We have three county board candidates that are making it a campaign issue, so it’s getting a lot of traction,” Otten said. “What that group is trying to do is say, ‘Let’s do this as a county and say we don’t want these monstrosities in our county.’ I think a county board who took that strong stance would be heroes, but a lot of people don’t want to make that an issue.”
In candidate interviews and on social media, candidates have identified things such as medical freedom, Second Amendment rights, fiscal responsibility and protection of constitutional freedoms as key campaign issues.
Seven freedom-fighter candidates are running for county board, which is a lot, Otten said. Ten seats on the 25-member county board are contested.
The county's Republican Party website links to a Sheboygan County for Freedoms “Guide to spring elections,” which are the personal choices of Judi Pool and not formal endorsements from Sheboygan County for Freedoms, it says.
Democratic Party is sharing voting information and candidate interviews by nonpartisan organizations
The Sheboygan County Democratic Party does not support candidates in local elections, Quinn said.
Ahead of spring elections, the party is focused on sharing information about how to vote and directing voters to nonpartisan groups to learn more about local candidates, she said.
“Within Sheboygan County, we have a pretty low voter turnout for the spring," Quinn said. "I sometimes think that people don’t quite realize how low voter turnout is."
She added: “Our focus is very much to get the vote out and make sure people know that there’s an election and local elections matter. Local elections have the biggest impact on the quality of life that we have here in our city, and it’s the same for other municipalities."
The party is spreading awareness that some polling places have changed after redistricting, including in Sheboygan, and that citizens in every municipality have the option to vote early.
People can call their municipal clerk to find out when and where early voting is, which has already started.
People can find the name and phone number of municipal clerks using myvote.wi.gov.
The Democratic Party is also letting people know where to learn more about candidates, including reading Sheboygan Press candidate profiles, watching the videos of the American Association of University Women candidate forums, and going to vote411.org, a League of Women Voters site with candidates’ responses to questions, Quinn said.
Those organizations are all nonpartisan and give candidates the same questions.
Quinn said it's “troubling” some candidates declined to participate in the AAUW forums and fewer than half of candidates running for office in Sheboygan County responded to the vote411.org questions.
“We’re just trying to make sure we share information so that people can research it, learn about their options, and then they can make an informed choice of who they think would be a good candidate to fulfill the duties of that office,” Quinn said.
Local elections are nonpartisan. What does that mean?
Parties don’t endorse candidates in local elections, but voters should know where candidates stand on the issues.
Those are two things on which the county Republican Party and Democratic Party chairs agree.
The Republican Party is not trying to make local races partisan, Otten said.
“I think we’re trying to catch up to reality," he said. "These bodies that are having major elections are not filled with people that have, in my estimation, conservative values. For so long, people have said these are nonpartisan offices. OK, but when partisan people run, it’s pretty obvious.”
Voters don’t know what candidates stand for when candidates use vague language like, “We’re for the people,” Otten said.
“There’s no such thing as nonpartisan anymore. Everybody has a view," he said. "I would say this: It’s not an endorsed election. We’re not endorsing candidates, we are just identifying people that we feel share our values. I think we should make clear distinctions between people and how they would vote on certain issues.”
For the Democratic Party, Quinn said the “essence” of nonpartisan forums is inviting all candidates who are running to answer questions.
“We don’t know what party affiliation candidates are, and it really does not matter because they have been elected to do the best that they can for their community based on conversations they’ve had with the citizens they represent,” she said.
“I think (nonpartisan races) are a wonderful tradition here because it really focuses on who has the knowledge, skills and experience for a position, and it’s not about them being part of a party,” Quinn added. “Local spring elections are my favorite because these are all people who really want to make a difference in their community.”
How to vote
To vote, people must be registered and present a photo ID. People can register to vote online at myvote.wi.gov or at the polling place the day of the election.
People can also register to vote by mail by printing out the voter registration form on elections.wi.gov.
In-person voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. April 5.
Reach Maya Hilty at 920-400-7485 or [email protected]