By John Celock
By a narrow two vote margin the Kansas House of Representatives approved legislation moving local and school elections to the fall.
The House voted 64-58 Thursday to a bill that will switch all nonpartisan local and school elections to November of odd number years from the current April date. The move, which has been pushed by Republicans saying it would increase voter turnout, came following months of controversy over the idea, which had included a period of merging the local races with other elections in November of even number years and making the races partisan in nature. The races will remain nonpartisan under the bill. The bill has been opposed by local governments and school boards around the state.
“According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan group, when they compared spring and in odd number years, they showed a potential increase of doubling the voter turnout,” House Elections Committee Chairman Mark Kahrs (R-Wichita) said. “That is the essence of this bill.”
The bill was part of a conference committee report that also included bills to eliminate the state’s presidential primary in favor of a party caucus and to limit the reasons a party nominee can be replaced on the ballot to dying or moving out of state. Most of the debate, though focused on the local elections bill, which had been pushed by Gov. Sam Brownback (R) in his State of the State Address in January.
Opponents of the measure say that the change will not help boost voter turnout and noted that the local governments and school boards are opposed to the move. House Minority Whip Ed Trimmer (D-Winfield) told the House that the cities and school boards in his district have opposed the bill. He said that many have said that the date change would cause newly elected members to take office in the middle of the fiscal year instead of at the beginning when they can help craft a budget.
Opponents kept citing that 200 school districts have passed resolutions opposing the date change.
“When did we stop listening to local governments?” Trimmer said. “When did we start deciding that we know best?”
Kahrs said that the final bill before lawmakers was a “compromise” between the House and Senate advocacy groups that placed the elections in November of odd number years and kept them nonpartisan. Original proposals had the elections placed in November of even number years, when they would have been on the ballot with state and national races, which opponents said would cause voters to overlook local contests. In addition, early proposals had looked to make the local election partisan.
Kahrs said that the final bill was supported by the Kansas Association of Counties and the County Clerks Association, and that the League of Kansas Municipalities was neutral on the final measure, after first opposing it. Trimmer told the House that the League’s neutral stand did not mean the group supports in the final bill.
Rep. Kathy Wolfe Moore (D-Kansas City) told the House that she does not see the bill as a compromise and she does not see the move bringing out new voters. She said that she believes the November date will bring a “partisan flavor” to the discussion and said that she believes in the future lawmakers will want partisan local elections.
“I don’t consider this a compromise. A compromise involves listening,” Wolfe Moore said, saying that her local officials are against the change. “I believe that we are mandating to our locals.”
House Local Government Committee Chairman Steve Huebert (R-Valley Center) said that he has been pushing the bill for several years and talked about his own service in local government where he wanted to see higher voter turnout.
Huebert said that there are ways to work around the concerns raised by school districts that superintendent of schools’ evaluations are done in February and new members would not be informed enough to participate. He said the districts can change that date and that he does not see an issue with elected officials starting in the middle of the fiscal year.
“The current budget has you coming in after the budget is decided. You have no input,” he said. “You are given a budget and asked to rubber stamp it. To say that is the best way to do things is disingenuous.”
Several lawmakers, including House Veterans, Military and Homeland Security Committee Chairman Mario Goico (R-Wichita) raised concerns over current state and federal law that requires 45 days between a primary election and general election in order to send general election ballots to overseas troops. Under the current system, the second round of the spring elections is 35 days after the first round. He said the fall date will change that since the first round will be held in August.
Rep. Stephanie Clayton (R-Overland Park) argued that the elections do not need to be moved to November to fix the military issue, saying the Legislature can just change the spring dates to comply with the state and federal laws. She also noted that federal officials have not asked Kansas to make a switch.
House Democratic Policy Chairman John Wilson (D-Lawrence) told the House that there are other ways to improve voter turnout instead of changing the election date. He noted that several ways include Saturday voting, allowing voters to vote at voter centers countywide instead of one polling place near their home, more advanced voting, vote by mail systems and same day voter registration. The voting centers are currently used for advance voting in the state.
Proponents of the date change bill did not discuss Wilson’s proposals in the debate.
Clayton honed in on the state making the decision during her speech. She compared those supporting the move, largely conservative Republicans, to President Barack Obama during her speech.
“This bill having government drive voter turnout follows a big government philosophy,” she said. “Are we the ways to choose to have a big government philosophy or are we the people who want to keep turnout in the hands of the candidate.”