Politics & Government

Wichita council unanimously opposes changes to elections

The Wichita City Council took a stand Tuesday against the Kansas Legislature’s attempt this session to move local elections to the fall.

The council unanimously passed a resolution opposing the legislative move to end spring local elections, along with any possible move to make those elections partisan.

Council members, and City Manager Robert Layton, said the bills threaten local control of local elections and are little more than a precursor to turning nonpartisan local elections into another example of gridlock.

The current bills would move all local elections, such as races for the Wichita City Council and Wichita school board, to the fall on odd-numbered years; some lawmakers advocate moving them to fall in even-numbered years in conjunction with state and federal elections. Supporters say either move would resuscitate sagging turnout.

Only 6.19 percent of eligible voters in Sedgwick County voted in city and school elections last April; Wichita voters considered council races but there was no citywide vote for mayor.

Turnout for the fall statewide elections was 66.8 percent in 2012, when there was a presidential election and 49.7 percent in 2010.

Council member Janet Miller said her constituents in District 6 – with one exception – oppose the legislation.

“This appears to me to be an issue of trying to fix something that’s not broken in terms of local governance,” she said.

Layton agreed, saying the nonpartisan nature of Kansas local politics is one factor that made Wichita attractive to him five years ago.

“My experience professionally is a majority of municipal elections around the country are conducted on a nonpartisan basis,” the city manager said.

Partisan elections are more volatile, and can politicize the decisions of councils, working against the tradition in Kansas of nonpartisan local government, Layton said.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, a former District 4 council member, supports moving local elections to the fall of even-numbered years. He took exception to the council’s objections Tuesday.

“They’re effectively taking 6 percent of the population for a referendum on their decisions and choices,” O’Donnell said. “I do find it disheartening the council doesn’t want to answer to more people at the ballot box.”

Legislators are concerned about sagging voter turnout, O’Donnell said, and view the local elections move purely in that context.

“You had a 90 percent dropoff in many places from November 2012 to the spring 2013 statewide elections,” the senator said. “Our whole desire is to increase voter participation.”

O’Donnell wants local elections to remain in even-numbered years, held in the fall, and said he’s OK with continuing the state’s tradition of nonpartisan elections.

“I believe it gives more control to the citizens of the school district and the city when you have 60 percent turnout instead of 6 percent turnout,” he said.

Council member James Clendenin said he thinks the legislation is another attempt to consolidate power in the Statehouse.

“As you go into the community and listen to citizen concerns,” he said, “this is the last thing on their minds. … This is a move to take more local control away from local governing bodies.”

“It’s another hit at not allowing us to make decisions for and with the citizens who have elected us,” he said.