There are pros to a bill that would combine local elections with balloting for state and national offices, but they seem to be outweighed by the negative aspects of the proposal.
The House Education Committee is considering the bill which would move local elections for city councils and school boards from the spring of odd-numbered years to November of even-numbered years and combine the vote with elections for state and national offices.
The big advantages cited by the bill’s sponsor are an undetermined financial savings and a likelihood that combining the votes would increase turnout for local elections.
It’s always positive to save money, and, goodness knows, Lawrence and probably every other city in Kansas could use some help in getting more people to vote in important local elections. Last April, only 14 percent of Douglas County’s eligible voters cast ballots to elect members of their city councils or commission and local school boards. Raising that percentage even a little closer to the 62 percent turnout in the November 2008 presidential election would be a step in the right direction.
However, that increased turnout would come at a price. School board and city races, which are nonpartisan, would be mixed with partisan races for state and national office, and there is a valid fear that the partisan influence could rub off on the local balloting.
There’s also a strong possibility that local races would simply get lost among hotly contested — and often highly financed — state and national races. We might be able to get more people to the polls, but would they be any better prepared to make a thoughtful choice among local candidates? Thankfully, Lawrence school board and city commission races are mostly issues-based and locally funded, but it might be hard to focus much attention on those races in a November vote, especially in a presidential election year.
Money isn’t everything. A measure that eliminated many local primary elections last year, primarily as a money-saving measure, didn’t have a particularly positive impact on local elections in Lawrence. Higher turnout is positive, but it may not be a good tradeoff if it simply attracts high numbers of voters who want to vote for president or governor but have little knowledge of local candidates or races.
The House bill looks like a good step for efficiency but perhaps not so great for democracy.