Lawmakers study pros and cons of moving municipal elections to November

? During the 2013 municipal elections in Lawrence, only about 17 percent of registered voters turned out to vote. And that election included a ballot issue for a $92.5 million school bond issue.

That’s not unusual in Kansas, or in other states where city and school board races are held on a completely different cycle from federal and state races and where local races are conducted on a nonpartisan basis.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, believes it’s time to abandon that system and move municipal elections to November, combining them with the higher profile state and federal races that generate more turnout.

“Plain and simple, turnout for the current system is pitiful, and it gets worse every two years,” Huebert said. “We need to either figure out a way to increase turnout for the current system or move the elections.”

Over the last five years, no fewer than 10 bills have been offered in the Legislature to change the way municipal elections are conducted in Kansas. Some have proposed merging them with state and federal races in even-numbered years while others have proposed holding them in November of odd-numbered years. And some have even proposed making them partisan races.

So far, none of those proposals has passed, but lawmakers did agree at the end of the 2014 session to have an interim committee study the issue and make a report to be considered in 2015.

On Friday, the Special Committee on Ethics, Elections and Local Government got down to work, and the first day of hearings showed the issue is fraught with controversy.

Among those testifying was Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, who told the panel that moving municipal elections to November would make elections more complicated and wouldn’t necessarily increase voter turnout.

“We have concerns about the amount of ballots, the size of ballots, poll workers giving out multiple-page ballots, confusion among voters, that type of stuff if you move it to November of an even year,” Shew said.

Shew is the current president of the Kansas Association of County Clerks and Election Officials. He was part of a panel discussion before the Legislature’s Special Committee on Ethics, Elections and Local Government, which met Friday to begin studying the question combining local elections with state and federal races.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is among those who support merging municipal elections with the state and federal races, and he supports making them partisan races, arguing that would reduce the number of different kinds of ballots that would have to be printed.

“We should combine all elections in the fall of even numbered years if and only if steps are taken to reduce the number of ballot variations in any given county,” Kobach told the committee.

But Shew said there are just as many down sides to that idea because combining the elections would involve lengthy ballots, thus increasing the time it takes voters to complete a ballot, resulting in what is often called “ballot fatigue.”

“We see that already,” Shew said. “When we have a two-page ballot, a bunch of people drop off when voting for judges and township officers and that type of thing.”

Shew said there are other ways to increase voter turnout and cut costs besides moving the elections, such as holding mail ballot elections for local races, something he said has been successful in other states.

Shew said the association is opposed to merging municipal elections with state and federal races but has taken no position on the idea of moving them to November of odd-numbered years.

Supporters of that idea say it would keep municipal elections separate, but would send a consistent message to voters that November is election season, regardless of what year it is.

But local elected officials in Lawrence say they oppose both of those options, and they especially oppose the idea of making local races partisan.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Lawrence school board president Shannon Kimball. “The partisan politics going on at the state level really don’t have any place in the decisions going on in the school district. Our mission is to educate kids in the best way we can and that should not be a partisan issue.”

Lawrence Mayor Mike Amyx agreed. “I like the nonpartisan part (of the current system), and I do like the fact that they’re not part of the general election,” he said. “Local elections need to keep their own identity.”

Kimball said moving the local elections to November would be especially hard for school districts because it would mean new board members would take office in the middle of a school year and the middle of a budget cycle.

Kimball said she is also concerned about the low turnout for municipal elections, but she doesn’t think changing the date of elections would solve the problem.

“That’s a problem of civic education,” she said.