In an effort to get more people voting to select their mayors, city councils and school board members, state lawmakers are mulling legislation to move local elections from the spring to the fall.
One of Sedgwick County’s new state senators, Michael O’Donnell, believes a bill to move the local elections has a “better than 50 percent chance of passage” in the 2013 Kansas Legislature.
Holding local elections — mayor, city council and school board races — in the fall with state and federal elections would save about $80,000 locally while hopefully boosting local turnout, Republican proponents say.
“If we’re tripling voter turnout in some cases that’s a huge victory and saving money for taxpayers that’s needed for numerous projects is a positive, too.” Rep. Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, local elections chair in the Kansas House, is drafting a bill to have primaries every August and general elections every fall. Under his bill, local elections would occur in odd-numbered years; state and national elections in even-numbered years. Other Republicans, such as O’Donnell, want local, state and national elections held at the same time to save money.
Schwab said he expects both ideas to be fully discussed.
“It’s going to be a good debate,” Schwab said. “There are a lot of reasons to do it and a lot of reasons not to do it.”
Schwab acknowledged that alternating state and local election years wouldn’t save money, but said he’s also skeptical that combining the elections in even-numbered years would save very much.
He said his main goal is to increase interest in local elections that now draw meager turnout because “people aren’t wired to vote in the spring.”
For example in Sedgwick County, only about 14 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the spring 2011 elections for city and school board races, and only about 7.8 percent in the February primaries.
In contrast, 65 percent of Sedgwick County voters cast ballots in November’s presidential election. The largest spring turnout locally was in 2005, when 38 percent voted on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions.
While Schwab believes he could increase turnout by moving elections to the fall, he worries that local issues could get lost in state and national debates if all the elections are held during the same year.
“The problem you have is the major issue in Great Bend, Kansas, is to slow down the speed limit on (Highway) 281,” he said. “You can’t have that debate when everyone else is talking about Obamacare and guns. You just can’t, and that’s the reason why we have the spring elections.”
“But the problem is, after this last presidential election, people are tired. They’ve spent two years doing their homework, and they don’t want to engage. That’s why you do want to move them.”
Fall local elections don’t draw an immediate no from Joan Wagnon, chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party, who remembers campaigning for the job of Topeka’s mayor in snow and ice.
City and school board candidates run without identifying themselves as Republicans or Democrats, something some Republicans intend to change as part of the election shift. Wagnon and Democrat Rep. Nile Dillmore, who represents District 92 in northwest Wichita, say they’ll fight that change.
“Speaking as a Democrat, I’ve had a lot of Republican support in non-partisan elections,” Wagnon said. “If there were some way to keep the non-partisan nature of these elections and run them in the fall, then yes, I’d say that makes some sense.”
Wagnon said her support for non-partisan local elections is simple: In intensely Republican Kansas, a non-partisan election is often the only way for a Democrat to get a fair hearing from voters.
“People vote party if they don’t know who you are,” she said. “This way, people vote more on the person, not the party.”
Dillmore agreed, saying non-partisan local elections produce more qualified candidates and a more informed electorate.
“You get greater numbers of people who want to step up and run. It encourages a lot more individuals to be involved,” Dillmore said. “And by separating a party label from the election, voters get a chance to focus more on the issues and more on the people who want to tackle those issues. Government benefits as a result.”
Republican Rep. Mark Kahrs, a first-term House member from District 87 in Sedgwick County, supports the election change. He says local elections need to be partisan if they’re going to be consolidated with state and national races.
“The issues we face at the local government level are exactly the same at the state level,” he said.
The proposed change gets a tepid review from Tabitha Lehman, the Sedgwick County election commissioner, who worries about unintended consequences that the shift could produce.
“I’ll be very honest. The fiscal conservative in me thinks it is a great idea. The election officer in me is freaking out,” she said.
A fall election in Kansas carries with it multiple logistics problems, and the potential for cost increases that could wipe out any savings, she said.
“I have no doubt that it would be good for the voter, but we may not be saving anything here,” she said.
For example, Lehman said the wordy boat tax constitutional question on November’s general election ballot required a 17-inch long ballot that had to be outsourced, at a cost of $63,000 to county taxpayers since the county press can’t handle 17-inch paper.
There could be new equipment needs as the size of the election and turnout grow, she said.
And then there are multiple logistical issues, including ballot styles and the types of elections held by various cities and school districts.
“It’s dicey,” she said. “Cities and school districts often have their own nuances built into their elections, and you’re adding this at a time when we’re all busier already.”
Kahrs, though, downplays her assessment.
“If you consolidate the local election with the state election, there’s simply no question there will be a cost savings. I don’t know how much, but I’m certain there will be.”
Contributing: Dion Lefler of The Eagle