Put it to a vote

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners has an opportunity today to make government more responsive to the will of the voters. Commissioners should seize that opportunity and place a measure on the May ballot to make their seats nonpartisan.

Commissioners Don Skundrick and Don Rachor both said when they ran for office in 2010, voters asked them why commissioners were elected by party. Skundrick reported it was the second-most frequent question he encountered.

Both men are Republicans, and both have decided not to run for a second term. But both are willing to let the voters decide whether a partisan primary should continue to be part of filling the positions.

The third commissioner, Doug Breidenthal, also is a Republican, but opposes placing the matter on the May 2014 ballot. The county Republican Party organization also opposes the idea of nonpartisan races.

That's not hard to understand, given the registration breakdown of county voters. Republicans outnumber Democrats, as they have for many years.

But here's the thing: Republicans are not a majority of county voters. Nonaffiliated voters — those registered with no political party — make up 25 percent of the electorate. That means Republicans control a "majority" of about three-quarters of the votes.

Registered independents don't get to vote in partisan primaries, when Democrats choose between Democrats and Republicans nominate a Republican.

In practice, this can mean candidates feel obligated to appeal to their party's base — liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans — to make it to the general election. More moderate candidates get shoved aside.

In November, independent voters may find themselves choosing between two extremes, neither of whom might have been their first choice.

What is most frustrating about this is that the issues county commissioners are called upon to decide seldom break down along partisan lines. County issues tend to involve development questions, approving budgets for county departments and fixing roads — the same sorts of things nonpartisan city councils decide.

Breidenthal argues that removing partisan labels would eliminate the "vetting" function of the primary election and put "a cloud of secrecy over the person's political views."

We're not sure why that should be. Any voter who cared what a candidate's "political views" were could simply ask. The rest could judge the candidates based on their approach to the largely nonpolitical business of county government.

The commissioners should place a county charter amendment on the May ballot, and find out what the voters think.

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