Attracting little attention and few voters, the spring elections in Kansas are no model of civic engagement. Still, state lawmakers should be wary of consolidating state and local elections in the fall.
During a recent hearing of a special legislative committee studying the idea, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach expressed qualified support for such election consolidation, accurately noting that “you will see a massive increase in turnout” if the municipal and school board contests now held in the spring of odd-numbered years are shifted to the fall of even-numbered years.
One of Kobach’s conditions, though, was that these rescheduled local elections be newly partisan. That would simplify things for election officials and offer an exciting new frontier for local parties. And on some city councils and school boards, the nonpartisanship probably is phony now.
But at least some of these local governing bodies, including in Wichita, still make spending and policy decisions on their merits rather than according to a political playbook. It would be a shame to see that change.
Kobach also expressed the real concern about the complications that could come with consolidation. The risk of error will rise when ballots must reflect school districts and municipalities and their city council districts as well as Kansas House and Senate districts, state school board districts, county commission districts and otherwise.
Longer ballots also mean more time taken by each voter, and likely more voters who decide to skip down-ballot races and questions. The consolidation also could lengthen lines at the polls – which, as it is, can be long enough in presidential years to deter some would-be voters.
Another caution came from Wendy Underhill, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures – that voters drawn by the big fall races who don’t know much about the small local races may nevertheless vote in them, “which means their uninformed votes dilute the votes of people who are more informed.”
Would new school board members elected in November be seated mid-school year or – just as awkwardly – have to wait until the next summer?
And imagine candidates for mayor, for example, having tried to get out their message to voters during the most recent election, amid that insane crush of TV ads, robocalls and mailers.
There has to be a better way. Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew suggested holding elections by mail for the local races, citing success in other states. The committee also is looking at moving the local races to fall in odd-numbered years.
Whatever they do, if anything, lawmakers shouldn’t let the prospect of a big turnout blind them to the trade-offs. They also should listen to locals, who aren’t clamoring for change.
For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman