The Myth of “Non-Partisan” Johnson County Local Elections

by Will Hoerl

Johnson County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) chairman Mike Kelly (along with Sharice Davids) are headliners at a pre-election ‘Get Out The Vote’  (GOTV) event for Democrats.

This ‘Act Blue’ event is in support of party volunteers for local candidates in the upcoming 2023 Election on November 7th.

On the surface this might not raise eyebrows…there are always such events leading up to elections… except that Johnson County local (school board, city, and county) elections are supposed to be “non-partisan”. 

The 2023 election in Johnson County does not have state-wide races, which means there are no “partisan” races to support.

Kelly and Davids are hosting a “partisan” event to support supposedly “non-partisan” elections.

During the 2022 Shawnee Mission Post debates at Johnson County Community College, (the race for JoCo BOCC chair), Mike Kelly chided Charlotte O’Hara a bit, after she declared herself a “conservative Republican.” 

Charlotte added, “Everybody knows this. No need to try and hide it.”

Kelly addressed O’Hara’s statement by saying that local Johnson County elections are non-partisan.   

In the current (2023) Leawood city council race, there was recent public discussion when a local candidate for city council renounced his inclusion on the local Johnson County Democratic Party’s list of recommended candidates.

The incident started over a dispute about comments he made that were critical of other candidates (who are Democrats) and supportive of a candidate who is a Republican.

One would think in a non-partisan race this would not matter, but it clearly did.

The city council candidate ended up ‘officially’ declaring himself an Independent in the race (something that at least in theory should have already been true.) 

People who volunteer to work on local candidate campaigns will tell you they often get asked “at the door” if their candidate is Democrat or Republican.

Folks inside each of the political parties have said they still provide support for ‘their candidates’, even if it is less obvious than for Kansas state and national elections which are still partisan.  

It seems that both political parties care about getting their partisan candidates elected. Based on recent news events, candidates feel they want to have their partisan positions declared. The public seems to want to know which candidates belong to which party and which candidates represent their views (cultural & political).   

So, why do we have “non-partisan” elections if everyone wants to know where the candidates stand based on party affiliation??? 

The answer to that started over twenty years ago when the 1999 Johnson County Charter Commission issued its “Final Recommendations”. 

This charter commission established the current makeup of the JoCo Board of County Commissioners, changed various county positions into “professional” (selected not elected), and changed local elections into “non-partisan”.     

It would take a far longer in-depth analysis to adequately discuss how and why JoCo felt the need to shift to non-partisan elections.

The political climate of the 1990’s, the driving personalities, the historical context that led to that Johnson County Charter Commission’s recommendation are all worthy of review, but in brief summary, there seem to be three central driving factors.  

  • Coming out of the 1990’s, local politics in Johnson County was primarily about streets, zoning, housing developments, water districts, and parks. National issues were rarely actually taken up by city councils or the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners.
  • Johnson County cities, although growing rapidly, still had a population that retained much of the older and smaller town “feel”,  and they held the idea that local politicians were a “known commodity”. The general opinion was that voters knew the guy running for city council or mayor, and this negated the need for party labels.
  • National-level politics were becoming ‘sharp-edged’. The political powers in Johnson County at that time held the general opinion that non-partisan elections would insulate local elections from what some saw as unnecessarily divisive national elements.  

If non-partisan was a “good idea”,  why is it becoming an issue now???

The answer to this seems to be split into two basic parts.  
1)   “National issues” now play out at a local level:  
City councils, the JoCo BOCC, and school boards now discuss and vote on resolutions that are ‘national issues’. Issues such as “climate change,” “Diversity Equity & Inclusion,” “racial justice,” “restorative justice,” “transgender policies,” and “CRT” (to name a few) are regularly brought before local elected officials. 

These issues drive resolutions, result in local tax money being spent, and sometimes cause local rules (zoning/housing/etc.) to be modified or new rules established.   

Local elected officials also now belong to a plethora of ‘national’ organizations, which influence their policy and vote.

2)   “National money” now plays an increasingly large role in local politics.    Where once only a small handful of issues (abortion comes to mind) brought outside money and politics to local and state elections,  now a whole host of issues do that.    Additionally,  local governance increasingly relies on Federal grants (and state grants) to manage their budgets and to fund projects.   

In short, national partisan politics have been driven to the local level.    

What is the current state of local elections??   

It is becoming clear that while the election ballot does not include political party, and both Republican and Democrat local organizations are careful to play by the rules, the thin veil of non-partisan local elections is at best “see through” and at worst, completely shredded.

Voters ask for party affiliation, and increasingly there is an effort to give that information to them.  

What can be done???     

This is perhaps the most difficult question to answer.

In theory, changing back to partisan elections is no more complex than assigning the next Johnson County Charter Commission to ‘undo’ non-partisan, bring that to a general vote, and return Johnson County to the standard partisan election process with party labels and party primaries.    

In practice, however, that may be a high political bar to clear.

In the meantime,  “real-life politics” seem to already be adapting.

Candidates are finding ways to identify themselves to voters.

Voters are finding sources of information to aid them in identifying candidates and their partisan party.

High-propensity voters (those active in politics) on both sides most likely know who is who.

Unaffiliated voters and “low propensity voters” (those for whom politics is not a burning issue) may continue to vote in the dark, but even this group will be (if not already) getting information.

Which brings us full circle to Chairman Kelly’s GOTV event.

The fact that this event is happening is not illegal, nor is it isolated.

Most likely both sides are doing very similar things.

It would be refreshing however, if elected officials would drop the pretense and perhaps resist the urge to preach about “non-partisan” elections . . . especially if they are participating in the “partisan” part.    

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *