Politics & Government

Senate elections chairman wants law changes to dilute teacher vote

Kansas teachers who watched over the past two years as legislators made changes to their profession are getting politically active this summer, hoping to persuade voters it’s time for a change in Topeka.
Kansas teachers who watched over the past two years as legislators made changes to their profession are getting politically active this summer, hoping to persuade voters it’s time for a change in Topeka. The Wichita Eagle

The chairman of the state Senate elections committee said Thursday that one of the reasons he wants to move school board and city elections from spring to fall is to dilute the voting power of teachers in low-turnout elections.

A spokesman for the state’s largest teachers union said it’s ridiculous to think teachers, who are often in conflict with their school boards, are controlling those elections.

Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, said he wants to reduce teachers unions’ influence in local elections in a news release on a bill he’s calling the “Help Kansas Vote Act.” Holmes, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, introduced the bill in his committee Thursday.

“The teachers unions do not want to give up the majority they currently enjoy in low turnout, off-cycle elections,” Holmes said in his release. “But this act is not about protecting incumbency or special interest groups, it is about giving community members representation in local issues.”

Holmes did not return a message seeking comment.

Holmes’ assumption that teachers control school board elections is “patently absurd,” said Mark Desetti, director of legislative and political advocacy for the Kansas National Education Association.

If that were the case, “things would be completely different, I can tell you,” Desetti said. “Think of the number of negotiations that go to impasse. If we were electing only our buddies to the boards, why would we go to impasse? It doesn’t make any sense.”

While the KNEA opposes the bill, Desetti said Holmes is “pandering” to anti-union sentiment on a bill that has little if anything to do with unions.

“This is just more union bashing for no good reason,” he said. “It’s trying to play on people’s fear of the big bad union guy. You know, we’re schoolteachers, for goodness’ sake.”

He said the potential harm to school board and city elections is that they would become extensions of national and state elections, dominated by “hyper-partisan warring and the ugly mail and everything else.”

“Why would we want to bring the part of elections that people hate the most (to local elections)?” he said. “These are our neighbors we’re talking about.”

The bill does not yet have a number assigned and copies were not immediately available because the language is still being fine-tuned by the legislative revisor’s office, according to Holmes’ committee assistant.

According to a written statement, in addition to moving elections, the bill would:

▪ End nonpartisan elections for local office. Candidates would run against members of their own party in primaries and against the opposing party in general elections, the way federal, state and county offices are now decided. Holmes cited “truth in advertising” as the reason for bringing parties into local elections

▪ Allow voters to vote a straight ticket, meaning they could cast a vote for all of a party’s candidates on the ballot by checking a single box. Kansas did have straight ticket voting in the past, but it’s unclear when the practice stopped or why.

▪ Revoke a state law requiring that election officials rotate names on ballots so the same candidate doesn’t always appear in the preferred position at the top of the list.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, sits on the elections committee and said while he supports consolidating elections to get a better turnout, he thinks the bill might be amended to keep local elections nonpartisan.

“I just think something good would come from higher turnout in local elections,” he said.

O’Donnell served on the Wichita City Council before he won his Senate seat and said “there’s dirty politics in any election” whether they’re partisan or not.

Craig Gabel, of the group Kansans for Liberty, is organizing members of his group to testify in favor of the bill when it comes up for a hearing at the committee Wednesday.

“The way the elections are set up (now) they are biased toward incumbents,” he said. “Basically a challenger has no chance whatsoever of overcoming an incumbent because of the time period.”

Gable has run unsuccessfully for offices in both spring and fall elections but said he thinks the fall elections, with their larger turnout, offer a better gauge of public sentiment.

“There’s a better chance of the person elected representing the people in general,” he said.

Contributing: Bryan Lowry of The Eagle

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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