By John Celock
The Kansas Senate narrowly voted to advance a bill to overhaul local elections Thursday night.
The Senate voted 21-18 to move all local government and school board elections from April to November of odd-number years. The move has been touted by Republicans, saying that the move would boost voter turnout in local elections, but has been opposed by local officials and school board members, who say their elections would be lost in the shuffle of the larger issues. Gov. Sam Brownback (R) had made the issue a priority in his State of the State Address earlier this year.
“We had testimony in committee that April is the worst month,” Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Mitch Holmes (R-St. John) said during the debate. “We one election official say that he would take any other month than April. He’d take December over April.”
Holmes touted increased turnout as the main reason for pushing the bill. He said that states that had moved local elections to November had seen a boost. He cited data he received from the National Conference of State Legislatures during the debate.
The local election bill has been a point of controversy for lawmakers since Brownback made it a priority earlier this year. Local officials have advocated against it, saying that voters would not notice local offices on a longer ballot and that voters would be paying more attention to presidential and gubernatorial candidates than local elections. Election officials also expressed concern about longer ballots and potential voter drop-off for down ballot races.
Holmes’ committee had developed a compromise bill that would have the local and school elections in odd number years, to avoid placing them on the same ballot as presidential, gubernatorial, congressional and state legislative elections.
Holmes told senators that one of the reasons for the move is to increase turnout away from interest groups that have pushed voters in the low turnout spring elections. He noted that lawmakers had received a series of emails from groups that wanted to keep the status quo.
“Our inboxes are full of resolutions. That is the effectiveness of organized groups,” Holmes said. “Organized groups should be able to get more success with off cycle elections. That’s because while the rest of us are fixing our taxes and watching TV they are going to the polls.”
Opponents of the bill expressed concern during the lengthy debate that the bill would cause issues with turnout, school attendance and local offices. Sen. Marci Francisco (D-Lawrence) expressed concern about whether the state could extend the terms of local officials through legislation. Under the move, local officials would now take office in January rather than July, thus extending the terms of current officials the first time it takes effect.
With the bill requiring school districts to provide school buildings as polling places, senators expressed concern about placing this requirement on school districts. They noted that providing a day off for students on Election Day would have an impact on student performance.
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau (D-Wichita), the ranking Democrat on the Ethics and Elections Committee, said that a Tuesday off would increase absences on Monday as parents decide to take long weekends.
“If it will effect the performance of students it will effect attendance,” she said. “A day off will increase absences on the day prior as students leave for long weekends.”
The Senate passed an amendment from Sen. Pat Pettey (D-Kansas City) that would require election officials to seek permission from school districts a year in advance to use a year as a polling place. The Senate also passed an amendment from Sen. Jake LaTurner (R-Pittsburg) that would move all local bond and tax referendums to the dates of primary and general elections instead of being on a special election date.
Pettey expressed concern that turnout in November. She said that the November 2014 election received only 50 percent turnout statewide, when one of the most competitive U.S. Senate races in the country was on the ballot.
“You’d think it was the most contested race in the nation with the most publicity why didn’t we have 80-90 percent turnout,” she said. “That was in November”
The bill now moves to the state House, where Local Government Committee Chairman Steve Huebert (R-Valley Center) has expressed support for the bill. Both Huebert and Holmes served on a joint legislative panel that studied election and local government issues in 2014. The joint panel recommended the move to November elections.
Holmes stressed to his colleagues that the bill was needed to help the state.
“We have data that states that have this have better turnout than off cycle. They have better shots in recruiting candidates,” he said. “The help Kansas Vote Act is for the people. It gets better government on the local level. It gives local control.”