By John Celock
A proposal to move local elections in Kansas from April to November is in the process of being drafted and is likely to be released in the coming weeks.
Gov. Sam Brownback (R) endorsed the local election date change in his State of the State Address last week, saying that it would increase voter participation rates. The proposal has been floated by state lawmakers in recent years and was the focus of a legislative study committee last year. At the same time, election administrators are arguing it would cause problems with how the elections are run potentially lead to voter confusion.
“For me the focus totally comes back to the turnout. The turnout was bad when I was in a spring election 20 plus years ago and its gotten worse,” state House Local Government Committee Chairman Steve Huebert (R-Valley Center), a long time advocate of the proposal, told The Celock Report. “There is not reason to justify two sets of elections since they had six percent turnout in the last one in my area.”
Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Mitch Holmes (R-St. John) said that he and other lawmakers are discussing the form a proposal can take but stressed the need to boost local election turnout. He noted that “a vast majority of elected officials in this state” are not elected in November, but in elections with a lower turnout. He noted that the local governments combined spend more than state government and more voters should be focused on these elections.
“You have a vast majority of elected officials in this state are not elected on the traditional election day,” Holmes said.
Huebert made a similar argument noting that more voters are needed on the local issues, including with 50 percent of budgets being spent on local schools. A former school board member, Huebert has been pressing the issue for eight years, dating back to his service as House Elections Committee chairman. The voter turnout argument has been made in other states that have looked at combining local elections.
Holmes said several options are currently on the table for the local elections including holding nonpartisan elections in November with a potential April primary, or making the local election partisans and moving them to November.
In terms of shifting the local elections to partisan affairs, Holmes said that the change could help in terms of voter education, since voters would know the backgrounds of the candidates based on party affiliation, noting that the seats they are running for are “taxing authorities.” At the same time, he noted that with a wide range of philosophical beliefs amongst Kansans on issues as taxes and government spending, there would be no one size fits all Republican or Democrat.
At the same time he said candidates would have to work harder to educate voters since it would be a larger electorate.
“The few who come out to vote will know the individuals,” Holmes said of the current system. ”Moving them to even or odd will force the candidates to be more proactive in telling voters where they stand”
Erik Sartorius, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, told The Celock Report that he disagreed saying that with so many candidates running, voters would not be able to learn about all of the candidates.
“Any municipal candidates would find it hard to receive traction for their campaign or receive any notice at all,” he said.
The plan gained momentum when Brownback highlighted it last week in his address to lawmakers, saying that more people needed to be involved in the process. Members of the House and Senate elections panels held a joint meeting on Thursday to discuss the study committee report.
While the discussion has been gaining momentum in Topeka, local election administrators are cautioning that there are a variety of issues that need to be discussed. Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew (D), who testified before the study committee, told The Celock Report that the administration of local elections in November is a major concern for him and county clerks and election commissioners across the state.
Among the issues Shew said exists are the need to deal with unaffiliated voters in the state if a nonpartisan primary is held on the same day as a partisan primary in August. He said that additional ballots would need to be printed to handle that aspect of the voting public. He said that with a November race, it would be likely a second page would be needed to be added to the ballots to handle the local candidates.
“In election administration two page ballots make people nervous,” Shew said, noting that there would be a drop off of people as they move down the ballot. “A two page ballot gets really confusing.”
In terms of counties that use electronic machines, Shew said there would still be issues because people would need to use the machines longer with more races to decide, which would cause longer wait times. He said that a longer wait time could cause people to leave before voting. He noted that the Johnson County election commissioner said that more machines can be added to polling places, but this would increase costs.
While some have argued there are decreased costs by eliminating the additional elections, Shew said that there are other issues that would increase costs including additional ballot printing or 29 to 34 cents apiece and potentially new machines.
“You will not really see a cost savings,” he said. “Just because you are ending two elections you are adding complexity and shifting the money.”
At the same time Shew said he and his colleagues do see the problems with low turnout in the local election.
“It is a valid discussion with our turnout for April elections being really low,” he said. “You are electing school board members and city commissioner and have a 10 percent turnout. What many of us have said is let’s put a bunch of this on the table.”
Among the issues Shew said county clerks would like to see discussed is shifting to mail ballot elections, noting they have increased turnout in other states. Kansas has utilized mail-in ballots for school district bond elections. Shew also said that state lawmakers should give election administrators more flexibility to reducing the ballot size.
Holmes said ballot size reduction is being discussed in Topeka. He said this could include allowing county clerks to print the language of ballot questions on a separate sheet of paper that is handed to voters or posted in the voting booth. The ballot would then contain the yes or no check offs.
“The goal here is not to shorten the ballot for the sake of shortening the ballot, it is to give them flexibility,” Holmes said.
Local officials are expressing concerns that moving the local races to November will take the focus off of the local communities in Kansas, since state and national races would be on the shared ballot. Sartorius, from the municipal league, shared Shew’s concerns about drop off in voting. He said this could occur because of ballot length or because voters do not know anything about the candidates.
Sartorius said that the league would rather explore other options to boost turnout, including mail-in ballots.
Holmes and Huebert argued against the drop-off issue cited by Sartorius and Shew, saying that any drop-off would still lead to higher turnout since more voters would be voting to begin with.
“While that is an issue, even with that you will see a large increase,” Huebert said. “Is there drop off? Yes. But we would work to minimize drop off. Anybody who gives us as an excuse not to do it is grasping at straws.”
Former Smith Center Mayor Trey Joy (R) said that he wants to keep local elections in the spring, noting the need for a focus on local issues only. While he has not reviewed any of the proposals, he said he cannot see a higher turnout from the move.
“The genius of the current system is that we have a separate election away from the partisan, chaotic state and national elections to focus on our local communities,” Joy said. “The city and school positions will be so far down ballot during November elections, that I do not see how it will make any significant difference in voter turnout or results.”
Joy said that he does not want a one size fits all proposal, but rather for local governments to make the decision. A similar plan was adopted by New Jersey officials in deciding to move nonpartisan local and school elections to November from the spring.
“I want the local communities to decide,” Joy said. “We know what is better for our communities than the state does.”
Holmes said that the top priority for him is what he hears from his constituents who he said do not realize that there are local elections in the spring.
“These are people who are not apathetic. They are busy in their lives and have a sense of civic duty but have a busy lifestyle,” he said. “It is a good thing to get a uniform date going to reinforce the culture of voting in November.”