Dave Helling

Nonpartisan no more: Should JoCo commissioners run as Republicans and Democrats?

Independent Greg Orman on how partisan politics prevents progress

Kansas Independent Greg Orman described how he sees ever-increasing partisan politics making it harder to gain compromises for meaningful legislation. Orman made the comments during a public forum on elections sponsored by American Public Square i
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Kansas Independent Greg Orman described how he sees ever-increasing partisan politics making it harder to gain compromises for meaningful legislation. Orman made the comments during a public forum on elections sponsored by American Public Square i

Some Johnson County commissioners are in a snit because in their view, the 2018 county election was too partisan.

Commissioners are elected in nonpartisan contests, and candidates don’t have any official attachment to a political party.

But that didn’t stop Kansas Democrats from helping out in a couple of Johnson County races last year. There was a mailer, as well as some money. A couple of the candidates backed by Democrats won.

This was too much for some Repub — er, conservatives — on the commission. Commissioner Mike Brown said “it is not OK” that the Kansas Democratic Party weighed in on a nonpartisan election.

“They crossed a line,” he said. “They stepped on it, and they kicked it, and they jumped over it and thumbed their nose at us.”

This is high silliness. There is no such line. Democrats and Republicans and their party organizations are free to support or oppose any candidate, at any time, for any office, just like any other voter or group. There is no way under the U.S. Constitution to restrict that.

Holding a nonpartisan election only means candidates aren’t identified on the ballot as members of a particular party, and the parties are not officially involved in picking nominees.

Still, the brouhaha raises an interesting question: Why do local governments hold nonpartisan elections?

The answer is easy, according to supporters. Potholes aren’t Democratic or Republican. Keeping the political parties out makes compromise easier.

And keeping the parties out of primaries means the two best candidates for a job can compete, not just the most popular Republican and Democrat. That seems like a good approach.

But ... nonpartisan elections can be a problem, too.

Most voters find it harder to draw distinctions among the candidates in a nonpartisan election, which hurts participation and interest. That’s because party labels are efficient ways for voters to understand candidates, a shortcut that reduces the need to study the complexities of position papers and debates.

Political parties also can provide energy and organization that a candidate lacks. Campaign volunteers and donors know they’re working for a bigger cause than just a specific person — that can boost enthusiasm, too.

Here’s a way to understand this. The Kansas City race for mayor, now underway, is nonpartisan. The candidates may be Republicans or Democrats (or belong to some other party or no party at all), but they aren’t running that way.

That means voters have to study each candidate individually — on crime, taxes, spending, housing, incentives, a whole range of issues. For many folks, that’s a lot to ask. It’s even harder when there is little difference among the candidates on these and other issues.

Some voters will just give up. Turnout will be low. The two finalists may reach the general election with just 8,000 or 9,000 votes.

The reaction might be different if Republicans were planning to nominate a candidate for mayor, and Democrats, too. A partisan election would raise the stakes for many voters.

There’s a reason statewide elections are conducted on a partisan basis: Two major parties with broadly understood philosophies make choices easier for voters, increasing participation.

Partisan local elections, though, aren’t really popular. Of the nation’s 30 largest cities, 22 elect their mayors and council members on a nonpartisan basis.

In Johnson County, commission chair Ed Eilert is fighting furiously to protect nonpartisan elections, at least for now. The idea of non-partisanship remains powerful.

It makes democracy more difficult, though, a fact Johnson County commissioners can now see clearly.

Dave Helling has covered politics in Kansas and Missouri for four decades. He has worked in television news, and is a regular contributor to local broadcast programs. Helling writes editorials for the Star, and a weekly column. He was awarded the 2018 ASNE Burl Osborne award for editorial leadership.

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