Topeka Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach does not appear to have conducted any public information campaign, as required by law, to publicize the fact that the state recently shifted the election cycle for municipal elections from the spring to the fall of odd-numbered years.
Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew cited that as one possible explanation for why voter turnout in the county was lower than expected on Tuesday, when the first municipal elections took place in Kansas under the new cycle.
“We tried to get what word out that we could,” he said during a phone interview Tuesday. “I think there was an anticipation that there would be kind of a statewide push getting information out. We’ll kind of evaluate it for us, how we increase that push locally.”
In 2015, Kansas lawmakers narrowly passed a bill moving city and school board elections to a fall cycle for odd-numbered years so they would mirror the state and federal elections held in even-numbered years, with primaries on the first Tuesday in August and general elections in early November
Supporters of that bill hoped it would increase voter turnout, which is often substantially smaller in municipal races than in state and federal elections. The idea was to get people used to the fact that there are always elections in August and November, regardless of what year it is.
Included in that new law, however, was language specifically directing the secretary of state’s office to develop a public information program “to inform the public generally of changes made as a result of moving spring elections to fall elections.”
“Such public information program shall include, at a minimum, the explanation of which public office elections are being transferred from spring to fall elections,” the new statute reads. “The program shall include the use of advertisements and public service announcements as well as posting of information on the opening pages of the official internet websites of the secretary of state and county election officers.”
As of Tuesday afternoon, there was no information on the opening page of the secretary of state's website explaining the change in election cycle, and no record could be found of any advertising or public service announcements about the change that were sponsored by the secretary of state’s office.
Kobach spokeswoman Samantha Poetter said in an email late Tuesday that there is information on an internal page of the Secretary of State’s website that can be accessed through the “Upcoming elections” tab. She also said Kobach put out information through social media as soon as advance voting began. But she could not point to any advertising or public service announcements sponsored by the Secretary of State’s office.
At the time the 2015 bill was passed, Shew served as president of the Kansas County Clerks and Election Officials Association, which opposed the initial draft of the bill calling for municipal elections to be held in the fall of even-numbered years and to be made partisan.
But the group accepted the final draft of the bill, which moved the races to the fall cycle of odd-numbered years and left them as nonpartisan.
A survey of county election officials on Tuesday showed there was not much evidence to suggest the change had any impact on voter turnout.
Shew said late Tuesday afternoon that turnout in Douglas County appeared to be much lower than it was in 2015, when the primary was held in March, and might be on par with the 2013 elections, when the February primary was marked by a blizzard.
Wyandotte County Election Commissioner Bruce Newby said turnout appeared to be down in that jurisdiction as well, although he said it had nothing to do with the lack of a public information campaign.
Newby said his office sent out letters about a month and a half before the election to every registered voter in the county announcing the change and explaining their options for advance voting or voting in person. His office then followed up with post cards to all voters about two weeks before the election.
In Johnson County, Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker said turnout appeared to be higher than in recent elections and was on pace late Tuesday afternoon to break the county’s record for a municipal primary. But he attributed that to a large public information campaign that his office funded, as well as the addition of two new advance voting locations and a hotly contested race for a Shawnee Mission school board seat.
Laura Bianbo, office manager in the Sedgwick County Election Commissioner’s office, said turnout there appeared to be higher Tuesday than the last comparable primary in 2013, when there were city commission races but no mayoral race.
University of Kansas political science professor Patrick Miller said he believes the competitive nature of individual races has much more to do with turnout than the timing of the elections.
“I don’t want to say that the timing is an unimportant factor,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday. “But I think that people who are looking for the timing of the election to have a gigantic impact on turnout rates one way or the other are going to be severely disappointed, on average, in most states.”
Miller, along with the county election officials, said the real test of how much impact the change in timing has on voter participation will come in the general elections Nov. 7.