Douglas County clerk thinks spring elections for local government may soon move to fall
By Chad Lawhorn
April 8, 2015, 5:15 p.m. Updated April 8, 2015, 10:19 p.m.
Spring elections of city commissioners and school board members — like the one held Tuesday — soon may fall out of fashion as state legislators prepare to vote on a bill that would move the races to November.
“I would be really surprised if we had another spring election,” Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said.
Shew expects legislators to vote on a bill that would move city and school elections to November of even-numbered years, which means the races would share ballot space with presidential and gubernatorial races. If that vote fails, moving the races to November of odd-numbered years is likely, Shew said.
“I think they will do something,” Shew said of the legislature, which reconvenes April 29 after a three-week break. “What they do is going to depend on the politics of it all.”
Any change is expected to have significant ramifications for Lawrence City Hall. The most obvious would be that the terms of current commissioners likely would have to change. Currently, commission terms end in April of odd-numbered years. Under the proposed law, terms would end in January of even-numbered years.
That would seem to mean that Lawrence City Commissioners Mike Amyx, Jeremy Farmer and Commissioner-elect Matthew Herbert would all get an extra eight months added to their terms. Shew said the legislation is unclear on when an election would be held to fill the terms that begin in January 2018. If there is no election in an odd-numbered year, does that mean there would be another City Commission election in November 2016, but winners would wait until January 2018 to take office?
“I don’t know,” Shew said. “Several county clerks have looked at it, and the only thing we have determined is that it needs to be cleaned up. I don’t think it works the way it is written.”
Erik Sartorius, executive director of the League of Kansas Municipalities, said the extension of political terms could be problematic. He said the Kansas Constitution appears to prohibit lawmakers from extending political terms.
“That is one thing we really want to have shored up,” Sartorius said.
Whether elections are moved to even- or odd-numbered years is likely to have a major impact in Lawrence. In even numbered years, the voting pattern could change significantly because historically Kansas University students have come out to vote in presidential elections but have not come out in strong numbers to vote in city commission elections.
Increasing turnout has been a key argument in favor of moving the elections. Lawrence turnout on Tuesday was a bit more than 16 percent. Other communities also struggle with low turnout for city and school races.
Lawrence Mayor Mike Amyx said he, too, wants to see greater turnout, but he’s concerned about sharing ballot space with presidential, senate and gubernatorial races.
“The issues that we talk about in these local elections are important,” Amyx said. “I’m afraid they’ll get lost in all the partisan politics.”
As the bill is currently drafted, city and school board races would continue to be non-partisan, meaning candidates wouldn’t register as Republicans, Democrats or representatives of another political party. There are questions, though, about whether moving the races to November is a prelude to making them partisan in the future. An earlier version of the legislation this year called for partisan local races.
“As you talk to people, there are a number of folks who wonder if that is where everything is headed,” Sartorius said.
Shew said any change is likely to create considerable challenges for his office. He said moving the races to the even numbered years would mean ballots would grow to two pages in Douglas County.
Shew said he wants legislators to consider using mail ballots. The county used a mail ballot for a January local option budget election for the Lawrence school district. That election, which received far less media attention and debate than the City Commission races, had voter turnout of 34 percent. Shew estimated that if a mail ballot had been used for Tuesday’s election, turnout would have been about 40 percent.
Sartorius said that so far using mail ballots for local races has not gained traction among state lawmakers, mainly due to concerns about ballot security.
“But I think those concerns could be addressed,” he said.
Shew said he’d continue to lobby for the mail ballot, while also preparing for any changes that may be voted on in the coming days.
“It is great that we’re having this conversation, but let’s put everything on the table,” Shew said.