TOPEKA — A bill to shift local elections from the spring to the fall has passed the Kansas Legislature.
The House passed HB 2104 by a vote of 64-58 Thursday after an hour of debate. The minimum for a constitutional majority is 63 votes. The bill has already passed the Senate and now heads to the governor’s desk.
The bill is a combination of several changes to election law. It moves city and school board elections to the fall of odd-numbered years, but keeps them non-partisan.
The change is projected to double turnout in local elections. Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, noted that turnout in this spring’s election in Wichita hovered around 16 percent despite a mayoral race and a ballot measure about marijuana.
The change has been largely opposed by local elected officials and school boards across the state.
“When did we stop listening to local governments? When did we start deciding that we know best?” asked Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield.
Lynn Rogers, a member of the Wichita school board, contended in Wichita that the date change was “not being done to increase voter participation. It’s being done for control. Plain and simple.”
“If they were really concerned about voter turnout, they would change August primaries,” Rogers said.
During the House debate, Republicans contended the bill would make local officials more accountable by boosting turnout. Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, called low turnout “the ultimate voter suppression tool.”
Several lawmakers also voiced concern that under the current system military voters are disenfranchised.
Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, noted that Kansas statute requires a 45-day window for absentee ballots to be sent to military and overseas voters. However, the Wichita election this spring had a 35-day window between the primary and general elections.
“How can you possibly vote not to give them (military voters) their chance to vote?” asked Goico, who is an Army veteran.
The bill also would permanently eliminate the presidential primary. That would help enshrine the caucus system, which requires candidates to pay their political party $10,000 in order to participate.
Republicans say primaries, which come at a cost of $3 million to the state, are too expensive.
Kansas has not held a primary since 1992. Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, called the elimination of the presidential primary ill-advised, contending that primaries engage more voters. He said that 2016, a year in which both parties have open races for the presidency, would be an ideal time for Kansas to hold a primary.
The bill also addresses a controversy from this past year’s election by changing the requirements for a candidate to withdraw from a race after winning a primary.
Democrat Chad Taylor pulled out of the U.S. Senate race in September, a move Republicans saw as meant to boost an independent candidate against Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. This sparked a legal battle, with Secretary of State Kris Kobach trying unsuccessfully to keep Taylor on the ballot.
Under the bill, candidates’ names could be removed only if they die, if they move out of the state or if they or a member of their immediate family suffer from a medical hardship.
Kobach, who recommended the change, initially wanted death to be the only way off the ballot.
Contributing: Suzanne Tobias of The Eagle
How they voted
Here’s how south-central Kansas lawmakers voted on HB 2104 to move local elections from the spring to the fall. The conference committee report was adopted 64-58.
All area Democrats voted no. All area Republicans voted yes, except for Steven Becker of Buhler and Don Schroeder of Hesston, who voted no.