Kansas Democrats: Partisan Local Election Hurt Our Candidates

By John Celock

Kansas Democrats are preparing to go into hearings on legislation that could make local and school elections partisan affairs by arguing that they would hurt Democratic candidates locally.

The state Democratic Party sent out an email newsletter late last week saying that the proposal to make the local races partisan would have a detrimental effect on the party. The legislation – which will have a hearing in front of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Wednesday morning – would move the local and school races to November and shift them from nonpartisan to partisan. The move has been championed by Republicans, who note that they will increase voter turnout.

“Municipal and school board elections have been good training grounds for candidates to learn about the legislative process and public policy,” the Democratic Party newsletter read. “Making these elections partisan will make it more difficult to elect Democrats in a hyper-partisan environment. There is little reason to require those currently nonpartisan offices to become affiliated with political parties.”

Kansas Democratic Party Chairwoman Joan Wagnon told The Celock Report that that making the races partisan would interject party politics into what should be races focused purely on the issues impacting the community. She said that the issues impacting local governments are not partisan in nature.

“It causes people to look at party affiliation and not look at issues and who the candidate is,” Wagnon said.

With the bill set to come up at the same committee meeting that will discuss proposed legislation from Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) which would allow straight ticket voting by checking off one box, Wagnon said she is prepared to do battle on both. She was quick to say of both “I don’t like it, I don’t like it at all.”

She noted that she believed that the straight ticket voting proposal is a way to “obliterate Democrats” in the state. Kobach has said the proposal is designed to allow for voter convenience and to increase participation in down ballot races.

Wagnon, a former Topeka mayor, stressed the training ground argument from the party newsletter, saying that she has found that state legislative candidates started in local office to see if they wanted to run for higher office. She also said that she would like to see more of a trend to move towards appointing officials to certain offices.

“There are a number of ministerial functions that don’t need to be controlled by the parties like register of deeds,” she said.

Wagnon’s comments echoed those of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who attempted to make his city’s elections nonpartisan over a decade ago. Bloomberg, then a Republican who later became an independent, had said the issues in city government did not need a party label. Bloomberg’s efforts were defeated in a 2003 city referendum, where Democrats argued it was a way for Bloomberg to help Republicans.

Backers of the local election switch bill, including Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Mitch Holmes (R-St. John) and House Local Government Committee Chairman Steve Huebert (R-Valley Center) have said that the move would increase voter turnout by combining them on to the November ballot. The bill has been opposed by local officials and a growing number of school boards in Kansas have come out against the bill.

Wagnon said that she can see the turnout argument and said that the party would be willing to support the date switch if the local races can remain nonpartisan.

“The party can live with that if they leave the municipal and school board elections as nonpartisan,” she said.

Kansas Republican Party executive director Clay Barker told The Celock Report that both parties already play a role in local races, that there is no partisan label on the ballot. He noted that the GOP will send out mailers on behalf of local candidates. He also noted that former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) will be hosting a fundraiser for two Topeka school board candidates at the home of state Sen. Laura Kelly (D-Topeka) on Wednesday.

“Our local elections are already partisan in substance,” he said. “It doesn’t have the form of Republican or Democrat after the candidate. Both parties get involved to some degree with advice.”

Barker said that he believes the partisan label will actually help local candidates and voters.

“Putting the party label on it helps build both political parties, he said. “Voters are not informed of the local candidates and putting a party label will help voters know who they are voting for.

Barker noted that the turnout numbers in local and school races need to be boosted and the date switch will play a huge role.

Barker said that the date switch will not only boost voter turnout but could lead to more candidates seeking local or school office. He said the current system forces candidates to decide by the end of January if they want to run. He noted that with the holiday season and the post November election period, candidates might push off decisions on whether they run to two weeks in January. He said the change would also expand the time for the parties to recruit candidates for local office.

“It is also better weather to campaign,” he said.