Kansas Legislation Moves Local Elections, Eliminates Presidential Primary – and Gives SoS Prosecutorial Powers

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As legislative sessions wind down across the nation, state lawmakers are putting the final touches on election law changes before they adjourn. Earlier this week, I wrote about a Minnesota omnibus that passed the Legislature and headed to the governor. Further south and west in Topeka, Kansas lawmakers passed their own omnibus and some other session-ending legislation – but without the overwhelming bipartisan majorities seen in St. Paul.

One centerpiece of the omnibus is a switch of local nonpartisan elections to coincide with statewide elections. Supporters say it will improve turnout, but opponents (including many local officials) disagree, saying it is more about affecting outcomes. The Wichita Eagle has more:

A bill to shift local elections from the spring to the fall has passed the Kansas Legislature.

The House passed HB 2104 by a vote of 64-58 Thursday after an hour of debate. The minimum for a constitutional majority is 63 votes. The bill has already passed the Senate and now heads to the governor’s desk.

The bill is a combination of several changes to election law. It moves city and school board elections to the fall of odd-numbered years, but keeps them non-partisan.

The change is projected to double turnout in local elections. Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, noted that turnout in this spring’s election in Wichita hovered around 16 percent despite a mayoral race and a ballot measure about marijuana.

The change has been largely opposed by local elected officials and school boards across the state.

“When did we stop listening to local governments? When did we start deciding that we know best?” asked Rep. Ed Trimmer, D-Winfield.

Lynn Rogers, a member of the Wichita school board, contended in Wichita that the date change was “not being done to increase voter participation. It’s being done for control. Plain and simple.”

“If they were really concerned about voter turnout, they would change August primaries,” Rogers said.

During the House debate, Republicans contended the bill would make local officials more accountable by boosting turnout. Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, called low turnout “the ultimate voter suppression tool.”

Mirroring action in other states, Kansas would also eliminate the state’s largely unused presidential primary to save money:

The bill also would permanently eliminate the presidential primary. That would help enshrine the caucus system, which requires candidates to pay their political party $10,000 in order to participate.

Republicans say primaries, which come at a cost of $3 million to the state, are too expensive.

Kansas has not held a primary since 1992. Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, called the elimination of the presidential primary ill-advised, contending that primaries engage more voters. He said that 2016, a year in which both parties have open races for the presidency, would be an ideal time for Kansas to hold a primary.

Legislators also moved to clean up language about candidate withdrawals that contributed to controversy and litigation in the state’s 2014 U.S. Senate race:

The bill also addresses a controversy from this past year’s election by changing the requirements for a candidate to withdraw from a race after winning a primary.

Democrat Chad Taylor pulled out of the U.S. Senate race in September, a move Republicans saw as meant to boost an independent candidate against Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts. This sparked a legal battle, with Secretary of State Kris Kobach trying unsuccessfully to keep Taylor on the ballot.

Under the bill, candidates’ names could be removed only if they die, if they move out of the state or if they or a member of their immediate family suffer from a medical hardship.

Kobach, who recommended the change, initially wanted death to be the only way off the ballot.

Not part of the omnibus but also enacted yesterday was a bill (SB35) giving the Secretary of State prosecutorial powers in election fraud cases and increasing the penalties upon conviction. Those provisions were extremely controversial and were almost removed in the House during final debate, per the Topeka Capital-Journal:

Debate on the House floor centered on a series of amendments that would have stripped out provisions of the bill opponents found objectionable. The bill’s leading proponent, Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, successfully urged lawmakers to reject the amendments.

Rubin argued that amending the bill would force a conference committee with the Senate. This late in the session, a conference committee would likely kill the bill for the year as lawmakers look to adjourn as soon as the state’s budget issues are solved.

County attorneys for whatever reason are not interested in prosecuting election crimes, Rubin said. Election fraud is a serious crime, he said, striking at the heart of democracy.

“This bill remains critical to me if we want to stand for free and fair elections,” Rubin said.

The closest lawmakers came to amending the bill came in a change offered by Rep. Russell Jennings, R-Lakin, that would have stripped away prosecutorial power for the secretary of state from the bill, which also boosts penalties for election crimes. The amendment failed in a 60-61 vote.

Jennings said having three entities – county attorneys, the attorney general and the secretary of state — going after election crimes could lead to confusion.

“It creates a scenario where you could have a race to the courthouse. And whoever files first gets to prosecute. And there’s only [one] of the three in this conversation that really wants to get to prosecute and I really want him to file papers and keep good records, not prosecute,” Jennings said.

The measures now head to Governor Sam Brownback, who is likely to sign them both.

It’s interesting to note how Kansas and Minnesota have taken such different approaches to election legislation; of course, one major difference is that Kansas Republicans control the legislature and the governorship so there is no need for bipartisan compromise. That said, the fact that Minnesota’s governor has said he won’t sign any legislation that doesn’t enjoy bipartisan support is also undoubtedly a factor.

Nevertheless, as session ends in the two states it’s fair to say that the the often difficult relationship that often exists between partisans in a state legislature is probably more difficult these days in Topeka than in St. Paul.

Stay tuned …

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