Kansas Senate passes bill that would move local elections to November

? The Kansas Senate narrowly passed a bill Thursday that would move municipal and school board elections to November of odd-numbered years, and those elections would remain nonpartisan.

The bill passed on final action by a vote of 21-18. Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, voted no. Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, passed on the vote.

Senate Bill 171 would also make allowance for cities that have staggered terms, and those whose council members serve three-year terms, to have elections every year. If enacted into law, it would take effect in 2017.

The bill was slightly different from the version originally introduced in the Senate Elections Committee, which called for making all local elections partisan.

Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, who chairs the committee, said the change would increase voter turnout in local elections without necessarily increasing costs.

But critics said the bill would disrupt long-established schedules for local governments because newly-elected members would take office in January following the November elections.

Currently, city officials take office in April, immediately following the spring elections. School board members take office on the following July 1.

The Senate action came less than a week before voters throughout Kansas will go to the polls in municipal and school board primaries, which typically draw extremely low turnout.

Holmes said that by changing the election cycle so local elections mirror state and federal elections, with primaries in August and general elections in November, voters will get in the habit of going to the polls at the same time every year.

“It reinforces the habit,” Holmes said.

Holmes also chaired a special study committee that met several times during the summer and fall of 2014 to study the advantages and disadvantages of changing the election cycle.

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, a Democrat, testified at one of those hearings, arguing that switching to mail-ballot elections would do more to increase voter turnout than changing the election calendar.

The Lawrence school district held a mail ballot election in January for a local option budget issue. Turnout in that election was 33 percent, more than double the turnout in the last in-person general election for local offices in April 2013.

Shew had argued that one of the biggest challenges local election officials face is finding enough polling places and poll workers to handle in-person elections. In many urban areas, he said, the cost of renting space from private businesses has been rising, while many school districts have become reluctant to allow their schools to be used as polling places because of safety concerns about allowing the general public access to those buildings while school is in session.

But the bill addresses that issue by requiring districts to open their buildings as polling places, provided the county election officer provides 365 days notice. Districts then would be encouraged to arrange their schedules so school is not in session on election days.