Smile Politely

Why are county positions partisan, and should they be?

A white yard sign that says "early voting location" in dark blue is in front of the Leonhard Rec Center in Champaign.
Jessica Hammie

The 2024 primary election is upon us. Early voting begins tomorrow, February 8th. There are not many primary races to speak of in this cycle, including at the county level. In fact, the only contested county position in both the primary and general election will be Champaign County Coroner.

Last fall, longtime Champaign County Coroner Duane Northrup announced that he would be stepping down before finishing his term to rejoin non-political life as chief of buildings and grounds for the Mahomet School District. 

Following this announcement, The News-Gazette published an article by Jim Dey discussing Northrup’s tenure, and the political implication of his leaving. Shockingly, there was a statement in the article that we agreed with: “…no one — Democrat, Republican or independent — should underestimate how difficult the coroner’s job can be. The office is not a political playground to be filled with like-minded cronies.”

The work of a coroner is taxing and serious, and requires the fortitude to be able to deal with tragedy on a daily basis. It was a little confusing that earlier in the article, Dey referred to Northrup’s last opponent, current Urbana City Council member Chaundra Bishop, in this way: “Northrup, a highly regarded veteran of more than two decades in the coroner’s office, barely won his fifth term in 2020 against a Democratic foe utterly bereft of credentials for the post.” This was particularly confusing because Bishop has a degree in biological sciences with a chemistry minor, a Master’s in Public Health, and has a career in health education. While Northrup was certainly a veteran of the job, beyond an associate’s degree in criminal justice, he did not have any other striking credentials for the job when he was first elected. Prior to becoming coroner, Northrup worked in farming and construction.

All of this got us thinking: Why is the county coroner an elected partisan position? Moreover, why are all county positions partisan? And, should they be? 

Article VII, Section Four of the Illinois Constitution stipulates which positions should be elected, and which can be elected or appointed: “Each county shall elect a sheriff, county clerk and treasurer and may elect or appoint a coroner, recorder, assessor, auditor and such other officers as provided by law or by county ordinance.” In Champaign County we elect all of those positions except Recorder — a position that was dissolved via a referendum vote in 2021, with the county clerk’s office absorbing the duties of the recorder’s office. Recently, there was some discussion within the county board about making auditor and coroner appointed positions. Ultimately, a resolution to put this question on the ballot was voted down. The elected vs. appointed question is one for another day.

But, what would it look like if candidates for these positions appeared on the ballot without an “R” or “D” next to their name, like you might see in the consolidated elections for city council or school board? We live in a partisan society, probably now more than ever, so it’s difficult to remove any sort of leanings from an electoral process. We’ve noted in the past that despite the absence of political parties on those consolidated election ballots, candidates’ conservative or progressive values certainly inform how they make decisions within those governing bodies. Across the country, there are conversations about abandoning this supposed neutrality.

County board members are elected to represent the interests of their districts — having a political affiliation makes sense there. But what about coroner, auditor, clerk and recorder, circuit clerk, sheriff, and the like?

A commentary by the The Citizens Research Council of Michigan made an interesting argument for doing away with partisan county elections in their state, that boiled down to two main points:

  • Many of the services provided by townships and counties are mandatory and cannot be provided in alternative manners because of political leanings. The size and role of local government as it relates to non-mandatory services are usually driven by the size and density of the populations served.
  • Reform of the township and county officer elections can improve confidence in government and participation in elections.

There is a lot of truth in the first statement. Many of these positions do not have much wiggle room when it comes to reforming services or processes, whether it’s investigating deaths, maintaining the county’s accounting, or assisting the courts. These are duties that should be able to be equally and fairly performed, regardless of ideology. The position that gives us pause is Champaign County Clerk and Recorder. Their duties should be able to be performed without ideology clouding judgment. However, current clerk Aaron Ammons’ most recent opponent could not unequivocally state that the 2020 election results were valid. We’ve also seen a greater commitment to voting access with a Democratic clerk in office, with expanded early voting locations and promotion of  vote-by-mail options. We all remember the lines at the Illini Union in 2018, right?

The second statement? We’re not so sure. Improving confidence in government seems a little optimistic. Do we generally have more confidence in our city governments and school boards because they are non-partisan? It doesn’t appear that way. Just look at public sentiment surrounding recent school board decisions in Champaign and Urbana. We also question the idea that there would be more participation in elections. A look at the abysmal turnout for consolidated elections in general tells a different story. Political parties do the work to get the word out about their candidates. 

But back to Dey’s assertion. Perhaps having non-partisan elections for county positions such as coroner would lessen the likelihood of voters selecting candidates for these important roles simply because of the letter next to their name. We are certainly guilty of doing just that at times (and we’ve explained why), as are voters on the Republican side of the aisle. Perhaps it would draw more candidates to the process, people who don’t have an interest in being involved in partisan politics, but do want to use their skills and expertise to fulfill an important role in the community.

For now, and likely the foreseeable future, these will be partisan elections. There are two Democratic candidates for coroner, and one Republican candidate. Democrat Laurie Brauer is currently Deputy Coroner, EMT, and former corrections officer. Democrat Seon Williams is a funeral home owner. Republican Steve Thuney is serving as interim coroner, and was Chief Deputy Coroner. There is a lot of experience on the ballot this time around, regardless of party. So for now, make sure your voter registration is up to date, and make a plan to vote.

The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Louise Knight-Gibson, Julie McClure, Patrick Singer, and Mara Thacker.

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