Iowa Rep. Andy McKean, R-Anamosa, has reintroduced a bill to make elections for county positions nonpartisan.
It’s just one of the ways the longtime lawmaker wants to change the political process in Iowa this session. However, local elected and party officials say the change likely is unnecessary, and might even do more harm than good.
McKean introduced the bill for the first time in 2017, but it largely was ignored that time around, he said.
“Last time, it never got any real discussion,” he said. “This year, I serve on the state government committee and have been appointed to the subcommittee that will hear this bill. At the very least we’ll get some real discussion.”
The bill would require that county supervisors, auditors, sheriffs, treasurers, recorders and attorneys be nominated and elected on a nonpartisan basis. There still would be a primary election, but instead of being split between major political parties, all candidates would run as one group.
The top vote-getters in each race then would go head-to-head in the general election.
If the race is for a single post like treasurer, the top two contenders would compete. If there were two seats open on a county board of supervisors, the top four vote-getters in the primary would run for those two spots in the general election.
McKean said his goal in introducing the bill is to reduce political tension in Iowa communities.
“We are becoming much more partisan as a country, and I think this would help calm that partisanship at the county level,” he said.
McKean sees a lot of political will among his constituents, if not in the Iowa Legislature, for just such a move.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want to see the boat be rocked,” he said. “It’s been this way for a long time. Any kind of significant change is threatening. But this is something the public is beginning to want. People aren’t particularly concerned whether their county treasurer is Republican or Democrat. They just want the best person for the job. They’re sick of how long, expensive and unpleasant campaigns are. Hopefully, that will trickle up to the Legislature.”
Some county elected officials in the area shrugged off the proposed change as largely trivial. They feel partisanship has little to do with their jobs.
“On the county level, we just try to do what’s best for the voters,” said Republican Jackson County Supervisor Jack Willey. “I’ve never worn an R on my chest when I entered a board meeting. You look at both sides of an issue and see how it would affect the members of your community. I’m sure the Legislature thinks it’s that way, too, but I think it’s truer at the county level.”
Dubuque County Sheriff Joe Kennedy, a Democrat, said that was doubly true in law enforcement.
“I don’t think it matters if you’re Democrat or Republican,” he said. “There is nothing specific to the job of sheriff that imbues you more to one political party or the other.”
Republican Delaware County Supervisor Shirley Helmrichs said that because party means less at the county level, there simply is no need for the change.
“Once you’re elected, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “I haven’t seen it make a difference in Delaware County. We all campaign on what we have to offer. ... I don’t see making a change just to make a change because I haven’t seen a problem here.”
Jennifer Smith, a Dubuque resident and member of the state’s Republican Central Committee, said she understands the desire to calm partisanship. She has relatives who no longer speak to her due to political disagreement.
However, she believes McKean’s proposal would do more harm than good.
“All that does is drive things underground,” she said. “City Council is nonpartisan, but we all know who is Democrat and who is Republican. But when you are associated with a party, people understand where you probably come down on certain issues. If someone doesn’t know their party, that might change a voter’s decision.”
Dubuque County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Drahozal said he liked the intent and concept of the change. However, he was concerned that it would keep candidates from the visibility and support provided by party affiliation.
Iowa Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, expressed concerns about what it could do to voter turnout.
“Voter participation in non-party elections is dismal,” Isenhart said. “I don’t think such a change will increase citizen engagement.”
Smith doubted this was the balm for partisan wounds.
“The partisan divide is a deeper issue than whether we’re Rs or Ds,” she said. “It’s cultural. We need to address that on the personal level.”