- Associated Press - Sunday, March 12, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Lawmakers in the nation’s only nonpartisan legislature are considering several measures that would remove party politics from county-level elections, but they face opposition from county officials who say voters appreciate the shorthand of an “R,” ”D” or “L” after a candidate’s name.

A legislative committee will hear three bills this week that would make all county races nonpartisan or allow county residents to decide if they want nonpartisan elections. They would put county officials on the same level as most other state offices, said Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln, who sponsored a bill that would elect county clerks, registers of deeds, assessors, sheriffs, treasurers, attorneys, public defenders, district court clerks, surveyors, engineers and commissioners on nonpartisan ballots.

“Why do we elect so many of our offices on a nonpartisan ballot but then all of a sudden elect a county engineer on a partisan ballot?” Hansen asked. “How does party politics fall into the structural integrity of bridges?”

That’s nearly the same argument George Norris, architect of Nebraska’s unicameral system, gave to argue against partisanship in the 1930s: national party lines have little to do with state-level decisions.

The board of the Nebraska Association of County Officials doesn’t see a problem with the current system, association executive director Larry Dix said. The association might be open to nonpartisan county elections if every position, including governor, was elected on a nonpartisan basis, he said.

“County government, and especially the county board, is a policy-making body,” Dix said. “A lot of people say that when they run for an elected office, people look at their background, their fundamental policy beliefs before voting for a county official just like they would for a governor or secretary of state.”

Nearly all policy-making groups in Nebraska, from the legislature to school boards to public power districts, are elected on a nonpartisan basis. And the state-level equivalents of some other elected county officials are appointed.

County officials would have a choice in whether they want nonpartisan ballots under a bill sponsored by Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue. It would allow county residents to vote on a ballot initiative requiring nonpartisan elections if the county board of commissioners or 5 percent of registered voters in the county request it.

Running for a nonpartisan position, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party, is valuable for elected officials because it pushes them to spend time talking to voters across the political spectrum during the primary phase, Crawford said. And nonpartisan primaries allow the 20 percent of Nebraskans registered without a party preference to participate.

“It’s important that we are able to recruit candidates we think are the best candidates at the local level to make the decisions that are relevant at the local level,” Crawford said. “Making our county races nonpartisan allows them to truly be about the local issues that matter in that county and for the county races to not become referendums on national party attitudes and issues.”

Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor and former Democratic strategist, said Democrats stand to gain more from nonpartisan local elections in nearly every county. Without partisan affiliations listed on ballots, Democratic candidates in Republican counties would likely earn more votes.

“In Nebraska, Republicans would generally be opposed to nonpartisan elections at the local level because there are more Republicans at the local level,” Landow said. “Democrats would see it as a good thing at the local level for the same reason.”

A measure sponsored by Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango is nearly identical to Crawford’s, but it would apply only to counties with 15,000 or fewer inhabitants. Hughes, who represents a large rural district in southwest Nebraska, said he wanted to give smaller counties the chance to hold nonpartisan races after elections in Perkins and Red Willow counties in his district were decided by primary voters in 2014.

“This gives all voters the opportunity to vote, just like they do for school board and city council,” Hughes said.

About two-thirds of Red Willow County’s voters are registered Republicans, said deputy county clerk Penelope Cooper, who runs the county’s elections. Uncontested general election races are far from rare in the county, but in 2014, the first open sheriff’s race in nearly three decades upset many voters when only four Republicans ran.

“A lot of people were coming in and changing their party just so they could vote, and then changing back,” Cooper said.

Nationally, a majority of counties elect their officials through partisan elections, said Brian Namey of the National Association of Counties. Surveys the group conducted of its members in 1991 and 2008 found a slight shift toward nonpartisan elections.


Follow Julia Shumway on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JMShumway

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