Douglas County clerk urges cleanup of law moving date of local elections

? Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew explained to an interim legislative committee on Tuesday how it’s often the smallest details that cause the biggest headaches.

Shew, who is also the current president of the Kansas County Clerks’ and Election Officials’ Association, was asked to recommend any technical changes lawmakers may need to consider next year to clean up a sweeping election bill enacted this year that shifted city, school district and other local elections from the spring to the fall of odd-numbered years.

Shew did have a couple of suggestions, dealing with drainage districts and irrigation districts.

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew testifies before a legislative committee about changes needed in a new law that moves local elections to November of odd-numbered years.

“I can tell you that probably the most cussed-out I have ever been was due to a drainage district,” Shew said. “It is complicated because of why one person gets a ballot and another person doesn’t.”

Both drainage districts and irrigation districts are units of local government that have extremely limited authority to levy property taxes to fund very specific kinds of projects. They are managed by locally elected boards, but unlike almost any other kind of elections, eligibility to vote in those races is based on property ownership, not residency.

“It’s extremely complicated,” Shew said. “Especially if you’re out of state, you can vote in an election because you own property there. If you own property in all three of (Douglas County’s) drainage districts, technically you could go to each one of those polling places and vote in those drainage district elections.”

Shew said the question of who can vote gets even more complicated — and sometimes personal — if a married couple owns a piece of property, but only one person’s name is listed on the deed. And it gets more complicated still if the property is held by a trust.

Drainage districts deal primarily with stormwater runoff, and the taxes they levy go to fund local flood control projects. One of the Douglas County districts is located in North Lawrence.

Irrigation districts are similar. They are used primarily in western Kansas and other rural areas to finance and construct certain water irrigation projects.

Before the new law was passed, small irrigation districts of less than 35,000 acres were one of the few, if not only type of local governments that could elect its officers by mail ballot election. Under the new law, those elections would have to be conducted at polling places, Shew said.

Shew said he was asked to mention the irrigation district issue by the county clerk in Smith County, but he said it illustrates some of the concerns raised in unique kinds of local governments.

Another issue local officials raised about the new law came from small cities, such as Tonganoxie, that hold elections every year for city council members who serve staggered two-year terms.

Officials from the League of Kansas Municipalities said it wasn’t clear under the new law whether those cities could proceed with holding elections in the spring of 2016 and, if they did, when the terms of those elected officials would expire.

Bryan Caskey, head of the Elections Division in the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, said he believes there is no confusion in the law and that those elections can proceed according to schedule. Nevertheless, he said, the secretary of state’s office plans to issue new regulations to clarify that point because it is possible the 2016 Legislature might not be able to pass a cleanup bill in time for those elections.

Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, who chairs the interim Committee on Ethics, Elections and Local Government, said he intends to have further discussions about irrigation and drainage district elections when the Legislature reconvenes in January.