Douglas County clerk warns legislative panel about moving local elections to November

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew tells a legislative committee about the complexities of local elections. The committee is studying the pros and cons of moving city and school board elections to November to coincide with state and federal races.

? Local election officials in Kansas, including Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, told a legislative committee Friday that counties face a number of growing challenges in running elections and that combining city and school board races onto the November ballot would only make things worse.

Instead, Shew told the Ethics, Elections and Local Government Committee, the state should look at other options such as mail-ballot elections to increase voter turnout in local races. And it should consider changes in the way elections are administered, including the use of new voting technology, to make them less expensive.

The committee was charged during the 2014 session with studying the pros and cons of either moving municipal elections to November of odd-numbered years, or combining them with state and federal elections in November of even-numbered years. It is also studying the idea of making city and school board elections partisan races.

Committee chairman Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, said the panel has not been asked to draft legislation but only to write a report.

Shew used the example of the 2010 election, when Lawrence voters faced all of the regular state and federal races, plus two constitutional amendments and a ballot question about the city library. The ballot took up both sides of a 17-inch sheet of paper.

“I don’t have any room left,” he told the committee.

“The nightmare for us is a two-page ballot,” Shew said. “A two-page ballot becomes so cumbersome for the poll workers to give out, and I think a lot of people won’t vote the two pages, or they lose the two pages. I want to make sure we keep this to a one-page ballot.”

Besides the length of the ballots, Shew said combining municipal elections onto state and federal ballots would dramatically increase the number of different kinds of ballots that have to be produced.

For example, he said Willow Springs Township in southern Douglas County has 1,077 registered voters. But the township is divided between two Kansas House districts and two Kansas Senate districts. That means currently there have to be at least four types of ballots for that township and at least double that number for an August primary.

But Willow Springs is also divided between two school districts, Baldwin City and Lawrence, and those school districts have different types of elections for school board members.

In a regular November election now, Shew said, Douglas County uses 107 different “ballot styles.” Combining city and school board races onto those ballots would require an additional 30 different styles for the general election, and could raise the number of ballot styles for an August primary to well over 400.

Last month, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach told the panel that he favors combining municipal elections with the state and federal races, but only if municipal elections are made partisan because that would reduce the number of ballot styles required for the August primaries.

But many city and school board officials in Kansas, including many in Lawrence, have strongly opposed that idea, saying they don’t think party politics has any place in such local elections.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said he proposed legislation in 2014 to combine municipal elections onto the November ballots because he was concerned about extremely low voter turnout in the April elections.

But Johnson County Election Commissioner Brian Newby said another, less costly idea would be to make greater use of mail-ballot elections.

He said those are widely used by cities and school districts in Johnson County, especially in special elections for school bond issues or to fill vacant seats on an elected body. Over the last several election cycles, he said, the lowest turnout rate in a mail-ballot election was still better than the highest turnout rate in a regular April municipal election.

Newby and Shew both said their counties are facing additional challenges such as difficulty finding locations to use as polling places. In many areas, they said, public school buildings are no longer available because district officials worry about security issues.

They also said it is getting harder to find people to serve as poll workers. Many of those who do serve are now elderly, and many of them find the new technology used in elections difficult to understand.

One option they said should be considered is doing away with polling places in almost every precinct and allowing counties to operate centralized “polling centers” where anyone can vote regardless of where he or she lives.

They also suggested making greater use of a new voting system called Ballot on Demand, which automatically prints a ballot at the polling place based on the voter’s address. Both counties already use that technology for printing advance ballots, and they said it reduces the cost of printing ballots, as well as the risk of poll workers handing a voter the wrong ballot.