TOPEKA — The Kansas Republican Party is pushing legislators to change the dates of local elections and make them partisan, but a GOP-dominated state Senate committee rejected the second part of that plan Wednesday.
The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee debated a bill to hold city, local school board and community college board elections on the same schedule as legislative, congressional and statewide contests. Primaries would be in August of even-numbered years and general elections in November. The committee rewrote parts of the measure extensively and doesn't expect to take final action on it until at least next week.
Kansas holds nonpartisan local elections in the spring of odd-numbered years, with the general elections in early April. Voter turnout percentages can dip into the single digits, and Republican Party officials point out that having local elections coincide with state, congressional and presidential ones is certain to boost turnout.
"The intent of trying to move these elections is really to drive voter turnout," state GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold said after the committee's meeting. "Part of it is taking the elections and moving them to where the voters are."
But the committee removed language making local elections partisan. Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican whose district includes Fort Leavenworth, noted federal law prevents military personnel and federal workers from running for partisan office.
"A number of them have served in city commissions or on school boards, and this would deprive us of some very good people," said Fitzgerald, a retired Army lieutenant colonel.
Arnold and other Republican Party officials argued that making the elections partisan would help voters pick candidates by at least letting party affiliation act as a rough guide to their philosophies in low-key races in which voters sometimes don't see much campaign advertising. Arnold said parties also can help candidates disseminate their messages.
But some critics of the legislation see a push for partisan elections as an attempt by conservatives to use their clout within the GOP, the dominant political party in most of the state, to assert more control over cities and school districts.
And the rewritten measure is still drawing opposition from local officials, who acknowledge the low turnout in their elections but contend down-ballot races will get lost amid other contests in even-numbered years.
"They're trying to change things that don't need to be changed," said Mike Taylor, a lobbyist for the Unified Government of Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County.