Friday, March 15, 2013

Legislature considering measures to move local elections to November, allow partisanship

By NIKKI WENTLING, The Lawrence Journal-World

The Kansas House and Senate election committees heard testimony Thursday on bills that would move local elections to November in order for them to be held in conjunction with national general elections.

Under SB 211, the local elections, including the school board, would be partisan and held in even-numbered years. SB 145 calls for the elections to be partisan but held in odd-numbered years instead.

The House bill calls for the local elections to remain non-partisan and be held in odd-numbered years.

Local elections are currently held in the spring of odd-numbered years.

Brad Bryant, deputy assistant secretary of state, testified in support of HB 2227. He said the motive behind moving the elections is to increase voter turnout.

“It’s consistent. It’s predictable,” Bryant said. “The voters would know what to expect. There would be no confusion about if there is election or when it is.”

Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka, asked Bryant if there was any data to prove moving the date of the elections would increase turnout. Bryant said there was none.

Later, Alcala said that he thinks moving the elections to November would produce a lower voter turnout because of confusion.

However, at the hearing of SB 211 on Tuesday, Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Wichita, spoke in support of the bill saying state and local governments could save money by not requiring the polls to be open as many times a year.

Mike Taylor, director of public relations for the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., testified against the bills. However, he said his main objection is to the Senate bills, which would make the elections partisan.

“City issues tend not to be partisan,” Taylor said. “They really don’t fit in with Republican and Democrat talking points. They’re more about potholes or whether we should build a community center; those are they types of issues that are talked about in those races.”

Kelly Arnold, chair of the Kansas Republican Party, submitted written testimony supporting the idea of local partisan elections because political parties encourage participation.

“Partisan designations help voters elect the person who aligns with their philosophy,” Arnold wrote. “Municipal elections are so low-key most voters don’t vote because they know nothing of the candidates.”

But Senate minority leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said on Tuesday that the partisanship portion of the Senate bills is part of a power grab by the radical right of the Republican Party to dominate all aspects of the political scene in Kansas.

“Whatever arguments they raise for increased turnout and reducing cost is just a big smoke screen to hide the fact that they are out to take over and have as much control over state and local government as they can possibly get,” Hensley said.

During the hearing on the Senate bills, Taylor, along with other opponents, spoke against SB 211 because it would require elections to be held in even-numbered years. Taylor said this means local elections would “get lost in the shuffle,” and voters would be more focused on the national issues when voting. The opposition also said it could create logistical problems with the size of the ballots.

Opponents of HB 2227 said the change of date for the local elections to November of odd-numbered years would not create much difference in turnout and would cause unnecessary problems.

“City elections have been held in the springtime since 1861,” said Don Moler with the League of Kansas Municipalities. “That’s a period of 152 years, and we believe there’s no reason to move these elections unless we can show some truly compelling reasons to do it.”

Joe Daugherty contributed to this story.