Danedri Thompson
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Kansas voters elected new representation on school boards and city councils on April 7.
Turnout in April municipal elections is typically low, which has state legislators considering moving April elections to November. The Kansas Senate has passed a bill to do just that.
Brian Newby, Johnson County Election Commissioner, said moving municipal elections to the fall would increase voter turnout, he believes, in part because the election dates and polling places would be more predictable.
Over the past decade, the lowest fall election turnout is higher than the highest spring election turnout.
“Moving elections where they’ll predictable, that will help balance out the ballot,” Newby said.
The move would also assist the election office in finding polling locations. If elections were moved to November, the day could be a school holiday, allowing public school buildings to be used as polling places.
By 2017, Newby said Johnson County will need an additional 100 polling places. Those are hard to come by.
The Senate bill, SB 171, originally proposed to make local elections partisan and move them to the fall of even-numbered years. However, the bill that eventually passed the Senate by a narrow 21-19 majority would keep local elections non-partisan and move them to odd-numbered years. It would effectively create an election every November – a federal election in even numbered years and municipal elections in odd-numbered years.
The Kansas Association of School Boards (KASB) opposes moving local elections to the fall.
In testimony before the House Committee on Elections, Rod Stewart, president of KASB, said the current system – spring elections in odd-numbered years – works well.
“Opinion polls show local governance currently has the highest trust of any level of government,” Stewart’s testimony reads. “A Gallup poll found Kansans have among the highest levels of satisfaction with their schools in the nation.”
He told the committee that almost 200 Kansas school districts informed KASB that they passed official resolutions or statements opposing the change.
Shannon Kimball, president of the Lawrence Public Schools USD 497 Board of Education, told the House committee that the current April election cycle coincides with the beginning of school districts’ fiscal year and the school calendar. Board members elected in April begin their terms in July.
“Under the current election cycle, newly-elected school board members are able to fully participate in all the important decision making that occurs at the beginning of our fiscal year and before the school year begins in August,” she said.
Rep. Bill Sutton, who represents Gardner and Edgerton in the Kansas House said anything that increases voter turnout is a positive.
“I think it’s a win-win,” he said.
The bill that passed out of the House committee would move local elections to November of even-numbered years. Under the House proposal, local candidates would appear at the top of the ballot followed by candidates for state offices, like the Kansas House and Governor; and federal offices, like President and U.S. Congress.
That, Kimball said, would drown out the messages of school board candidates.
“Voters will pay less attention to the specific issues in school board races – which are often very specific to the community and unique to any other elected position on the ballot,” she said. “Thus canceling out the purported benefit of increased voter turnout.”
The full House has yet to vote on the proposal. If it passes, a conference committee will work out the differences between the House and Senate bills.
“What happens in conference, I have no idea,” Sutton said.
However, he would prefer to do municipal, state and federal elections at the same time.
“If we can increase turnout and save money for the taxpayers, how can you turn your back on that?” Sutton said.
In the House committee hearing, Kimball suggested that legislators could increase turnout by considering alternate forms of elections, rather than moving the date. In a January, Lawrence Public School mail-in ballot initiative 33 percent of voters returned ballots.
“Perhaps the answer to increased voter turnout is not to move school board elections to November, but to consider alternative ways to conduct such elections, like mail ballots,” she said. “That would increase voter turnout while neither damaging the business and operations of public schools, nor prohibiting participation on school boards by good, caring, highly-qualified citizens.”