Kansas bills on straight-party voting, removing candidate from ballot headed to full House

? A House committee advanced two bills Monday that would change the way elections are conducted, despite objections from Democrats that one of the bills would impose significant costs on county governments.

House Bill 2104 would provide that candidates could be removed from the ballot only if they die on or before Sept. 1. And in those cases, the party affiliated with that candidate would be required to name a replacement.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach had asked for the bill, saying it was a response to controversy in the 2014 election when Democrat Chad Taylor was allowed to withdraw from the U.S. Senate race. Taylor’s withdrawal request did not explicitly state that he would be unable to fulfill the duties of that office if he were elected, as required under current law.

The Kansas Supreme Court eventually upheld Taylor’s withdrawal anyway, saying it was enough that he cited the relevant statute in his request. And a three-judge district court panel later ruled that the Democratic Party could not be forced to name another candidate, despite a law saying the party “shall” name a replacement in such cases.

Kobach had said he thought both courts abused their discretion in those cases. But Democrats said that was only Kobach’s opinion, and it was no reason to change the statute.

“I think this is a bill that’s just looking for a place to land to address an individual’s disagreement with the court,” said House Democratic Leader Tom Burroughs of Kansas City.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said the bill would require candidates to stay on the ballot even if they suffer a debilitating stroke before the election, or if they’re required to move out of the state or out of their district.

But Rep. Joe Scapa, R-Wichita, said the state ought to prevent the same sort of controversy that surrounded the 2014 U.S. Senate race.

“I believe this bill is going to further clarify what was already in the law and was completely disregarded in the last election,” he said.

The second bill, House Bill 2108, would require that all ballots that contain partisan races in Kansas give voters the option of voting a straight-party ticket.

It’s another measure being promoted by Kobach, who said it would help speed up elections by saving voters who want to cast a straight-party ballot the time of having to mark each individual race. He also said it could reduce a phenomenon known as “ballot drop-off,” in which voters simply stop voting in races after a certain point on the ballot.

The system would allow voters to select a straight-party ballot, and tabulation machines would automatically fill in that party’s candidate in every race that the voter leaves blank. But voters could override the straight-party option in selected races, if they choose to, by marking the ballot for a different party’s candidate.

A report prepared by Division of Budget said it was impossible to estimate how much additional cost that would impose on counties for printing ballots, reprogramming equipment and training poll workers, but Democrats argued it would be significant.

Rep. Virgil Peck, R-Tyro, offered an amendment to include a “none of the above” option in each race. He said that would help voters who want to vote a straight-party ticket, except in those races where they don’t support anybody.

But committee chairman Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita, said that would make the ballots significantly longer and would add even more costs for counties.

Both bills now head to the full House of Representatives. There was no immediate word about when they would come up for debate and votes.