Washington voters could change the course of the city's history March 20.
A referendum on the ballot asks if Washington elections should be conducted on a nonpartisan instead of partisan basis starting in 2019.

If voters approve the switch, it would change an election process that dates to 1906.
Washington is the lone Tazewell County community with partisan municipal elections.

Bartonville is the only Peoria County community with partisan municipal elections.
A petition drive placed the Washington measure on the ballot.

Twenty Washington residents including petition drive organizer Lilija Stevens gathered 698 signatures from Dec. 6-15. The deadline to turn in the petitions was Dec. 18.

The 698 signatures was 280 more than the 418 required by state law to put the referendum on the ballot. The required number of signatures was 8 percent of Washington voters who cast a ballot in the Nov. 4, 2014 gubernatorial election.

Stevens said she began the petition drive because she even though she's a proponent of nonpartisan elections, she believes more strongly that Washington residents should have the opportunity to decide if they want to switch from partisan to nonpartisan elections.

Several speakers including Stevens spoke at Washington City Council meetings last year, urging council to put a referendum on the ballot. When that didn't happen by the Dec. 4 council meeting, Stevens said, she launched the petition drive.

"People in Washington are smart enough to make an informed decision on this important question," Stevens said. "Everyone involved in our petition drive loves Washington and wants to see more people get involved in the community.

"This effort to put the referendum on the ballot is the result of a perfect storm of events and people coming together. People who didn't know each other beforehand. We're not funded by a political party, and people from more than one party are involved."

Proponents of nonpartisan Washington city elections told council they believe most voters today identify with local issues more than political parties and they're concerned many Washington residents don't vote in city primaries because they don't want to declare a party or lose their ability to serve as an election judge for their preferred political party.

Also, they said Democrat election judges often don't vote in a city Republican primary because if they did, they'd lose their ability to serve as a Democrat election judge until they voted in a Democrat primary.

And, because of the Hatch Act, federal employees are not allowed to run for office in a partisan election.

All nine Washington City Council members -- Mayor Gary Manier and eight aldermen -- are Republicans.

No Democrat has been elected to council in decades and no Democrat has been on a city ballot for about a dozen years, according to the Tazewell County Clerk's office.

Washington's city clerk and city treasurer also are elected on a partisan basis. Those currently serving in those positions are Republicans.

Council members haven't commented publicly about the partisan vs. nonpartisan issue except at a Nov. 13 committee of the whole meeting.

At that meeting, several aldermen and Manier expressed concerns about making a switch.

Among the concerns were unintended consequences and a lengthy education process for the community if a change is made, and scrapping an election system that has worked well for decades.

Manier said council decisions are not made on a partisan basis.

The aldermen and Manier were sent an email last month asking for their views on the referendum. None responded.

Aldermen Brett Adams, who asked that a discussion of the partisan vs. nonpartisan issue be placed on the Nov. 13 council agenda, said in an interview last month he's glad voters will decide the issue, but his preference on nonpartisan and partisan elections is a personal matter "and not necessarily relevant. Plus, I don't want to sway someone's vote one way or another."

The issue of partisan vs. nonpartisan city elections in Washington first arose early in 2017 during campaigning for the city's February primary election, which included contested Republican races for mayor and two aldermen seats.

Most candidates spoke in favor of making the switch.

If partisan elections are scrapped in Washington, primaries no longer would be needed, saving cash-strapped Tazewell County some money. Tazewell County spent $14,621 for Washington's 2017 primary election.

If nonpartisan elections are adopted in Washington and five or more candidates run for a position, it would require a runoff vote to narrow the field. The scenario of five or more candidates running for a position hasn't happened in Washington since the 2001 mayoral race.

Saving money on primary elections was one reason voters in Pana decided in November 2000 to switch from partisan to nonpartisan elections after a referendum was placed on the ballot through a petition drive.

The referendum passed 1,443 to 509 with a 33 percent voter turnout.
Pana, a city of 5,847 in Christian County about 35 miles south of Decatur, has a mayor/aldermen form of government with eight aldermen like Washington, but with a heavy Democrat makeup. Pana's form of government didn't change with the 2000 vote.

Ken Mueller led the referendum petition drive that gathered more than 500 signatures after council voted against putting the partisan vs. nonpartisan question on the ballot.

"We haven't had any problems at all since making the switch," said Mueller, who was an alderman in 2000 and Pana's mayor in 2007 and 2008.

"In fact, we're getting different groups of people running for office now and in my opinion, the more people who get involved in a community, the better," he said.

"You don't call someone to fix a pothole because that person is a Republican or Democrat. School board members aren't voted in on a partisan basis. Why should city council members?"

The League of Women Voters of Greater Peoria has endorsed passage of the Washington referendum, saying in a news release issued last month that "the league has long endorsed nonpartisan city councils and village boards, which encourage citizen voting and cooperation."

Supporters of nonpartisan elections in Washington have a Facebook page, Vote Nonpartisan Washington.

Steve Stein can be reached at stevestein21@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.