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County auditors shouldn’t have a “D” or “R”

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | OCTOBER 02, 2009 7:20 AM

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Democracies are based on the notion that elections should be free and fair and that ballots should be counted in an unbiased manner. So — as we’re in the midst of election season — the question must be asked: Why is the county auditor a partisan position?

The incredulous inquiry isn’t an indictment of the current holder of the Johnson County office, Democrat Tom Slockett, or a narrow castigation of the longtime vote-counter. Rather, our concern is much broader: the potentially negative effect — at least symbolically — the partisan nature of the office can have on citizens’ perceptions.

In a sense, an auditor’s election-conducting neutrality is analogous to a hard-news reporter’s objectivity. While reporters undoubtedly have biases, their work should not reflect them. Similarly, auditors typically have partisan leanings. The difference? County auditors in Iowa have a “D” or “R” behind their names.

There isn’t a Democratic or Republican way to count votes (at least there shouldn’t be).

Consequently, it’s an office that shouldn’t be construed or classified as partisan. It’s arguable other county positions, such as attorney and recorder, shouldn’t be partisan, either. But the auditor’s role as commissioner of elections and voter registration should certainly solidify it as a nonpartisan office.

In addition to counting votes, the Auditor’s Office also compiles property-tax levies, certifies the county budget, and maintains property records, among other things.

Slockett told the Editorial Board he favors keeping the current system, citing transparency.

“It’s really more of a truth-in-labeling argument,” said Slockett, who has been the county’s auditor for more than three decades. “You can make the office nonpartisan … but just because you take the label off the ballot doesn’t mean the individual doesn’t have the philosophy or world view.”

Slockett argued Democrats typically focus on providing access to all voters, and Republicans emphasize rooting out fraud. It’s a fair characterization, but it doesn’t sufficiently rationalize making an office partisan that is, at its very essence about objectively counting votes and conducting elections.

Slockett’s Twitter account is an example of partisanship gone awry. His account is displayed prominently on the Johnson County Auditor’s website home page, amid voter registration information, election returns, and census figures.

But he doesn’t just Tweet “Get out the vote” or other assorted voting information. His Tweets regularly deal with explicitly ideological issues, such as whether the country should move toward a single-payer health-care system. Merits and criticisms of such a plan aside, overtly ideological espousals seem out of place on a county auditor’s website.

Slockett justified the account, saying, “It’s a good place for people to see what the auditor is doing and thinking.” He also noted that the county Board of Supervisors and that “the people of Johnson County, the majority of them, want health care for everyone.”

Be that as it may, the county auditor’s role shouldn’t be to advocate a given health-care plan.

This is a much larger issue than Slockett’s Twitter account, however, which is simply a manifestation of a larger problem. While our Founding Fathers didn’t even mention parties in the Constitution, they’ve now become an integral part of American democracy. Parties are an effective way to organize a government, provide accountability, and make voting easier by indicating general group ideologies.

But they should be left out of the auditor’s race.

The Legislature has the authority to change the situation, and it should do so. A preferable system would be one in which individual counties would at least be allowed to decide whether auditor candidates could run under a party banner.

Partisan auditors don’t have an insidious effect on democracy or voting. But the negative symbolism that can percolate from such a classification should be reason enough to alter the current system.


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