With the departure of Supervisor Terrence Neuzil for a job in Michigan, a seat has once again opened up on the Johnson County Board of Supervisors.
The board may appoint someone to fill the seat, which is on the ballot next year, or hold a special election. In any event, Democrats seeking the job will have a big advantage in dark blue Johnson County over any Republicans or independents who wish to serve.
Of course, a surprise is always possible. In March 2013, John Etheredge became the first Republican to win a Johnson County Board seat since the 1950s when he won a low turnout special election. But even after serving well and becoming an important voice on the board, he predictably lost his seat to a Democrat in the 2014 general election.
Good candidates who aren’t members of the locally dominant party stand little chance of winning. Same goes for independent candidates, who lack party support and start Election Day facing a big deficit thanks to straight-ticket partisan voting. Never mind that no-party is Iowa’s largest voter bloc.
And these partisan hurdles have somehow endured despite the fact supervisors and other county officials deal with almost no issues considered partisan in nature.
“I’ve never seen a pothole that preferred to be a Democrat or a Republican, only that it needed to be fixed,” said Linn County Supervisor Linda Langston, a Democrat.
This leads us to a simple conclusion. County elected offices in Iowa should be nonpartisan, much like city councils. And while state lawmakers are at it, straight-ticket voting also should get the heave-ho.
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“It might get more people to run for office,” said Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, who supports a switch to nonpartisan offices. “I run for office as a Democrat, but as soon as I’m elected, everyone expects me to be independent. It would be good to just remove that label.”
But as simple as that seems, the status quo is well entrenched.
The Iowa State Association of Counties dug into its archives and found partisan county offices dating back to the 19th century, according to Lucas Beenken, ISAC’s public policy specialist. He said the association’s current executive director, William Peterson, has been with ISAC for 35 years and doesn’t recall the issue of nonpartisan elections coming up for discussion at the Statehouse.
In 2003, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed legislation intended to set out a process where local governments in large Iowa counties could consolidate, including a provision allowing those newly formed governments to choose partisan or nonpartisan elective offices.
Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack vetoed the bill, citing those potential changes in local elections.
Since then, the issue has fallen off the legislative radar. Linn County Supervisor Brent Oleson would like to change that.
Last summer, Oleson, a longtime Republican, switched parties last summer and became a Democrat. He originally considered becoming an independent, but knew that straight-ticket voting would make it almost impossible to win re-election. In Linn County in 2014, 43 percent of county voters cast straight-ticket ballots.
“Its not like it’s a crazy, wild idea,” said Oleson, who has yet to persuade his colleagues to add the idea to their list of legislative priorities. “I just don’t think (the current system) serves Iowa well, because so little of what we do serves partisan politics ... You’re not dealing with abortion or capital punishment.”
The national picture of partisan county elections is fuzzy. When the National Association of Counties last surveyed states in 2007, 33 held partisan county elections with just eight holding completely nonpartisan contests.
Iowa is only one of 10 states that allows straight-ticket voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. A bill to abolish straight-ticket votes cleared a House subcommittee in 2013 but moved no further.
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Supporters contend straight-party votes are popular, accounting for 37 percent of votes cast in 2014 statewide. But we think they discourage thoughtful voting and lead to under-voting on back-ballot offices and issues, such as judicial retention.
“If you did away with straight-party voting, you’d encourage more candidates to run, too,” Miller said. “Because you wouldn’t have that deficit as soon as you start out. I’d be in favor of that too. I think it all fits together.”
We often hear politicians lamenting the low number of people willing to run for office, and the fact that partisanship has become too dominant. This is a chance for state lawmakers to tackle both problems. The status quo should yield to the reality of what county officials actually do, and party labels should no longer be a barrier to county service.
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