Legislators again consider moving school board elections to November

By Kansas Association of School Boards
November 24, 2014

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach on Friday urged passage of legislation that would move school board and other local elections to the November ballot, make the races partisan and require school board candidates to run at-large instead of from smaller districts.

"You will see a massive increase in (voter) turnout," Kobach told members of the Special Committee on Ethics, Elections and Local Government.

For the past several years, the Legislature has considered bills that would move school board and city elections, which are held in the spring, to the November election cycle. The issue will be up again during the 2015 legislative session that starts in January.

In addition to Kobach, the effort has been supported by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce and the Kansas Republican Party.

The bills have been opposed by many school boards, cities and counties.

State Rep. John Alcala, D-Topeka, asked, "What's the purpose? What's the problem that we have to change?"

Chairman Sen. Mitch Holmes, R-St. John, said, "Voter turnout is the underlying cause."

But state Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe, said he met with a number of Johnson County mayors and they oppose moving the election.

Wendy Underhill, program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said turnout is greater during November elections.

For example, turnout in the recently completed general election in Kansas was 43 percent of eligible voters and in the 2012 presidential election, 57 percent.

In the April 2014 school board election in Kansas City, Kan., turnout was 8 percent; and in the March 2011 city election in Kansas City, Kan. it was 22 percent, she said.

"It is clear, then, that if the small races are on the general ballots, more voters will receive the ballot and have the opportunity to vote on the small races," Underhill said. "Consolidating election dates does increase turnout for the small races as compared with running separate small elections."

But she noted that combining elections produces other problems.

Ballots can become long, cumbersome and confusing to voters.

As an example of consolidated elections, she noted that this year in Travis County, Texas, which includes Texas' capital city Austin, the electronic ballot was 12 pages long and absentee ballots were two legal-size sheets of paper, front and back, and required extra postage to mail. There were 154 races on the ballot and 384 selections of candidates or questions to be made. The ballot included 300 different ballot styles to cover all the various jurisdictions.

And when ballots get long there is voter drop off where voters skip voting in down-ballot races, she said.

Some proponents of combining election dates have said the move will save money, but Underhill noted some expenses will increase, such as printing, voting machines and postage. It also requires more time needed to vote and produces longer lines to vote. And Kobach conceded there would probably be no cost savings from consolidating the election dates.

Underhill said only 12 states hold school board elections in November of even years. These include Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, Utah and Wyoming.

In the past five years, 13 bills across the nation have been enacted in 11 states that move toward some form of consolidating election dates, but these bills are wide-ranging, she said.

Some set uniform election dates, some combine elections in November of even-numbered years, some in November of odd-numbered years, and some permit — not require — jurisdictions to consolidate elections.

The committee will continue gathering information on the issue at its next meeting, Dec. 12.