Topeka — The state Democratic and Republicans parties have the option of allowing nonparty members to vote in their Aug. 3 primary elections because of a recent federal appeals court decision.
As of Friday, neither party had decided whether to open its primaries to outsiders. Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh told their chairmen in a May 14 letter that his office, which oversees elections, must know by June 10, the candidate filing deadline.
Kansas law dictates closed primaries, in which voting is limited to party members. Unaffiliated voters can participate -- but only if they declare an affiliation at the polls.
However, in April, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver struck down an Oklahoma law that limited participation in that state's primaries to party members and unaffiliated voters. The Libertarian Party there challenged the law, arguing that members were being denied their constitutionally guaranteed right to associate with whomever they pleased.
"A state generally may not restrict the ability of a political party to define the group of citizens that will choose its standard-bearer," the appeals court said.
The decision led Thornburgh to send his letter to Kansas GOP Chairman Dennis Jones and state Democratic Chairman Larry Gates. Thornburgh said Friday he also notified election officers in each of the state's 105 counties.
Jones said the state GOP planned to announce its decision next week. He said he was consulting with other state officers and the chairmen and vice chairman of the GOP's four congressional district committees.
"I'm waiting for them to weigh in," Jones said.
Gates was not available for comment Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile, prominent legislators in each party said they favored continuing the current system.
"I think it has served us well over time," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka. "I believe in a two-party system and that people make a choice to become Democrats or become Republicans."
House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said the purpose of primaries is to decide who will represent the party in general elections.
"Kansas is a state steeped in tradition, and traditionally, the nominating process has been restricted," he said. "I think most Kansans are comfortable with that."
Kansas currently recognizes four parties: Democratic, Libertarian, Reform and Republican. Parties obtain recognition by submitting petitions signed by enough registered voters to equal 2 percent of the total votes cast in the last general election for governor. Currently, that figure is 16,714.
Once recognized, a party can place its nominees directly on the general election ballot, whereas independent candidates have to circulate petitions and collect signatures.
Republicans and Democrats have been holding primaries in Kansas since 1910. Libertarians and Reform Party members nominate their candidates at conventions.