As candidates for municipal and school board positions hurry to meet the noon Tuesday filing deadline, there is new interest in Topeka in moving such low-key elections to autumn in an effort to increase voter participation. But if the true goal becomes politicizing these nonpartisan contests, forget it.
As they are, the spring elections are falling short of turning out voters. Just 14 percent of Sedgwick County’s registered voters participated in April 2011, down from 24 percent in April 2007. Two years ago, one Hutchinson polling place went five hours before its first voter showed up. Even the turnout for the April 2005 same-sex marriage amendment was just 38 percent in Sedgwick County, compared with 65 percent for recent presidential election.
House Elections Committee Chairman Scott Schwab, R-Olathe, said one proposal would move these local general elections to the first Tuesday in November in odd-numbered years. But would that really garner new attention? If they’re alone on the ballot, they may be as easy to ignore in November as they are in April, and there would be no cost savings.
Meanwhile, others support holding these local contests in even-numbered years, at the same time as elections for president, Congress, statewide and county offices, the Legislature and more. Such a shift would save $80,000 locally, proponents say, but there could be new costs for longer ballots and the like.
Because turnout is always at its best in November, more voters would have a say in who serves at City Hall and their local school districts. However, there is also a risk that those nonpartisan races would get lost amid the big-money fall contests.
For its part, the League of Kansas Municipalities cautions against moving the local elections to November in even-numbered years, calling it “inappropriate and confusing for the public” for partisan and nonpartisan elections to coincide and arguing the savings would be small. And “while tying local elections to the state and federal elections may increase the total number of individuals who vote in city elections, it would likely diminish the information available about city elections and candidates,” the LKM warned.
Similarly, the Kansas Association of School Boards argues that “public engagement in school district governance is best served by electing local board members in nonpartisan April elections, rather than the November general elections.”
Some argue that communities would be better off if the candidates for local elections, especially for City Council, declared party affiliations and campaigned and governed accordingly.
Though the party loyalties of the candidates for City Council and school board often are well-known, the campaign debates themselves usually steer blessedly clear of party politics.
What’s more, partisanship has yet to foul the working relationships and define the voting majorities on many such governmental bodies. These public servants tend to make policy decisions on the merits, without checking a political weather vane.
Especially without a clear case for change, Kansas lawmakers probably should leave spring elections where they are, while locals seek other ways to generate interest.