TOPEKA — If lawmakers want to shift local elections from spring to fall, they should make city elections partisan and have school board districts dissolved in favor of at-large representation, Secretary of State Kris Kobach said Tuesday.
Local officials probably also would need to make local districts match up with the boundaries of some state legislative districts.
That’s what Kobach said would be necessary to accommodate a proposal to shift local elections from April to November.
Without those changes, Kobach predicted, voters and poll workers could be overwhelmed by the variety of ballots needed to accommodate overlapping state, city and school board districts.
“The complexity will probably increase the length of the lines and increase the chances of poll workers making errors,” he told a Senate panel.
But, done properly, holding city and school board elections in November could increase voter turnout and save money, Kobach said.
Some lawmakers, including Wichita Republican Sen. Michael O’Donnell, have advocated for the change, but others see it as a potential mess.
Republicans have suggested shifting school board and municipal elections to the fall could save $80,000 in the Wichita area while increasing turnout.
About 14 percent of eligible voters turned out to vote in city and school board elections in Sedgwick County in spring 2011. About half that many turned out for the primary. About 67 percent of registered voters statewide showed up to vote last November; 65 percent voted in Sedgwick County.
Kobach acknowledged that the idea of eliminating district-specific school board members could lead to one part of a city or one demographic group having more representation than another. But he said it could also lead to more minority candidates being elected, depending on how those at-large candidates are elected.
The civil rights-era Voting Rights Act bans local governments from doing things that dilute minority votes, often achieved by dividing minority communities or creating at-large representation. Some towns have been ordered to replace at-large voting for that reason.
Kobach said that a mixed system where all candidates run in a single election and the top three finishers win may avoid diluting minority votes and could help minority candidates who campaign well and get most of their base out to propel them to the top three.
Leavenworth Republican Sen. Steve Fitzgerald said local elections in November could lead to an overwhelmingly political season where candidates are virtually lined up at voters’ front doors with their campaign pitches.
“The real concern becomes the availability of front yard space for yard signs,” he said. “It’s going to be ridiculous.”
That concern could be remedied with another idea circulating the Capitol: shifting local elections to November in odd-numbered years when there are no statewide races.
Kobach said that could increase voter turnout some but that it wouldn’t save money.
“It’s kind of a compromise,” he said.