By The Wichita Eagle, Feb. 21
State legislators aren’t alone in disliking the abysmally low turnout in municipal and school board elections. But the proposed remedies look like more Statehouse meddling likely to create new problems.
Senate Bill 211 would move the elections from the spring in odd-numbered years to August (primary) and November (general) in even-numbered years. Participation would skyrocket, as City Council and school board seats shared ballots with national, state and county races. But local contests and issues would suffer by having so much competition for voter and media attention.
It also would be confusing to mix in the nonpartisan municipal and school board races with the partisan contests. While the bill originally politicized as well as moved the local races, a Senate committee wisely amended the language Wednesday to keep them nonpartisan. Then it inexplicably contradicted that move by approving an amendment by Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, to empower local political parties to fill midterm vacancies. In the case of O’Donnell’s own 2012 exit from the Wichita City Council, for example, the local GOP would have chosen a successor; now, the governing body picks replacements. Another amendment would tell 60 school districts to change how they elect boards; locals also have concerns about beginning board members’ terms in January rather than July.
The Senate committee has yet to pass the bill. A separate measure, House Bill 2227, would keep the elections nonpartisan but hold them in the fall in odd-numbered years, which at least would accord them the full spotlight. The League of Kansas Municipalities opposes both bills.
Wanting to bring more attention and voters to local races is a worthy goal, but the Legislature shouldn’t impose an unwanted and uncertain fix on locals.