TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature is inching forward with plans to move municipal elections to the fall.
The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee took the substance of Senate Bill 211 on Wednesday and stuck it into House Bill 2141. It approved the measure Thursday morning after weeks of consideration and passed it to the full Senate.
The bill as originally written would have moved all municipal elections, such as races for the Wichita City Council and Wichita school board, to the fall on even-numbered years at the same time as state and federal elections. Supporters say this will boost turnout, but opponents argue that this is an attempt to make municipal elections more partisan and unnecessarily overrides the authority of local governments to set their own elections.
Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, introduced an amendment allowing municipalities to keep their elections on odd-numbered years when there are no state and federal elections. The committee passed this amendment, which puts the Senate’s bill in line with a similar House bill, against the vocal opposition of Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, who has been one of the primary advocates for moving election dates.
“It doesn’t get the job done,” O’Donnell said. “It’s not saving money, and you’re not guaranteed higher turnout.”
He argued that voter turnout for local elections has been abysmal, and that pairing local races with state and federal elections would increase turnout exponentially. But moving them to the fall on odd-numbered years won’t necessarily produce the same result. He also said combining elections would save money.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brad Bryant, who attended the committee meeting, said his agency’s analysis showed that the biggest gains in turnout would be in even-numbered years, but that fall elections in odd-numbered years also would increase turnout.
Bryant also said that the cost to create more complex ballots if all elections were combined would actually offset the savings of holding elections only in even-numbered years and might end up costing counties money. He said it was a much bigger challenge administratively.
Another challenge if local elections are moved, noted the Office of the Revisor of Statutes, would be determining how to handle local officials whose terms in office are slated to end the following year. The revisor advised that a “trailer bill” would be necessary to fix this matter.
For his part, Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer questions the motivation of House and Senate Republicans who want to move local elections.
Wichita City Council candidates are not listed as Democrats or Republicans on the ballot. Brewer believes that moving local elections to the fall is an attempt to join nonpartisan races with the state and federal elections where candidates are identified by party.
“That’s the intent of the entire thing is to make it partisan,” Brewer said last month.
O’Donnell said that his opinion about local elections predated his time on the Wichita City Council, where he was known for clashes with Brewer before his election to the Senate in 2012.
But his criticisms of local elections often center on the Wichita City Council. He scoffs at the idea that the elections are nonpartisan, noting Brewer’s attendance at the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and 2012.
He also suggested that the reason city officials oppose moving elections is that holding an election in the spring prevents an engaged electorate from coming to the polls.
“I would just ask them, do they believe it’s appropriate to have 6 percent turnout?” O’Donnell said. “Do they believe nothing should be done? Because in my opinion they’re happy with low voter turnout and low engagement.”
Brewer said he would like to see greater turnout and dismissed the notion that spring elections are designed to keep voters away. He also argued that this bill is an example of the state encroaching on the authority of local governments.
“At what point in time do we start allowing local government to actually function instead of state legislators trying to dictate how local government is going to function and how it’s going to work?” Brewer asked.