Kobach pushing bills to limit ballot withdrawals and to allow straight-party voting

? Candidates would have a much harder time withdrawing from a race after a primary election, but voters would have an easier time casting straight-party ballots under bills that Secretary of State Kris Kobach is urging lawmakers to pass.

Kobach appeared before the House Ethics and Elections Committee Wednesday to testify in favor of two bills, including one that he said is a direct response to last year’s controversy over Democrat Chad Taylor’s withdrawal from the U.S. Senate race.

“This bill is a direct response to two, what I believe to be erroneous, decisions by Kansas courts interpreting Kansas election law,” Kobach said.

Taylor, the Shawnee County district attorney, dropped out of the U.S. Senate race on Sept. 3, a month after winning the Democratic primary. That cleared the way for independent candidate Greg Orman to be the sole challenger to incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts, a Republican.

Kobach challenged Taylor’s withdrawal under a 1997 law that says candidates can only drop out if they die before the election, or if they declare that they would be incapable of fulfilling the duties of office if elected. Taylor’s written request to withdraw made no such declaration, but it did reference the statute that says there must be one.

The Kansas Supreme Court later ruled that citing the statute was sufficient and ordered his name taken off the ballot.

A private citizen then filed suit in Shawnee County District Court demanding that the Democratic Party name another candidate to replace Taylor. But a three-judge panel ruled that the party did not have to because the statute saying that a party “shall” name another candidate was vague. Also, the petitioner in that case failed to show up in court on the day of the hearing.

“This is an increasing problem,” Kobach told the committee. “Courts that twist the law under the guise of interpreting the law.”

Under Kobach’s bill, a candidate would be allowed to withdraw after Sept. 1 only if that candidate dies. And it would clarify that political parties must name another candidate in the case of a vacancy on the ballot.

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, pointed out that the bill would not allow for withdrawals of candidates who can’t serve because they have to move out of the state or out of their districts. He also said it does not provide for cases in which the party cannot find another candidate to run.

But Kobach called those “extreme” circumstances and said, “the rarity of that hypothetical does not justify the continuance of a clause that has been abused by some candidates and has been grossly misinterpreted by the court.”

Straight-party ballots

Kobach also testified for a bill that would allow voters to vote straight-party ballots simply by making one mark to select all the Republican, Democratic or other party candidates.

He said that would speed up the voting process and make it more convenient for voters. He cited statistics from the last election showing many voters only vote in the top two or three races, and that the number of ballots marked decreases as the voter gets farther and farther down the ballot.

Under his proposal, voters would be able to mark one choice for a party, and that choice would automatically be carried down the ballot in all partisan races in which the voter doesn’t make a choice. But voters could override that choice in individual races by marking the ballot for a different party’s candidate.

Committee chairman Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita, said he believes that would fit with another bill the committee is expected to consider, moving municipal and school board races to November of even-numbered years and making them partisan.

But Carmichael said it would be a problem in some areas, including Sedgwick County where district court judges are elected in partisan races.

“You and I have had our discussions about your opinion of the competency of the Kansas judiciary,” Carmichael said to Kobach. “But would I understand that under this default system, since it is a partisan race for judge, that we would be selecting judges in Sedgwick County, for example, by default?”

Kobach said he disagreed with that characterization.

Kahrs said he plans to have the committee start debating and offering amendments to both bills next week, after which they could be voted on and sent to the full House.