- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Republican legislators in Kansas are moving to shift city and local school board elections to the fall of even-numbered years, saying the change will boost voter turnout.

A plan for scrapping the tradition of holding local elections on the first Tuesday in April of odd-numbered years emerged from negotiations between the House and Senate before voting this week in city and school board contests across the state. They would be on the same schedule as elections for county, state and congressional offices, and city and school board races would be listed first on the ballot.

Supporters argue the plan would increase low voter-participation rates like ones reported Wednesday by county election officials. Johnson County, the state’s most populous, said less than 10 percent of its registered voters cast ballots Tuesday; turnout was 16 percent in Sedgwick County, despite a ballot initiative in Wichita to lessen criminal penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“A democracy does not thrive without participation,” said House Elections Committee Chairman Mark Kahrs, a Wichita Republican, and one of the legislative negotiators. “It’s all about increasing voter participation.”

But critics contend local races will become more openly partisan - even if, as the plan provides, local candidates still won’t have party affiliations listed on the ballot.

“The motive is to elect more conservative Republicans to office,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

Critics, including many local officials, also see administrative problems arising and believe city and local education issues would get lost in the din of campaigns for governor, Congress and president.

Legislators are taking their annual spring break and would consider the proposal after reconvening April 29 to wrap up business for the year. The conservative-led Kansas Republican Party supports the plan, but GOP lawmakers, who hold large majorities in both chambers, are split.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback urged legislators in his annual State of the State address in January to move such elections to the fall, without specifying which years. He said the current system “does not honor our values of wanting higher voter participation.”

A few opponents of the change said Wednesday that to boost turnout, lawmakers should allow mail-in ballot elections for city offices and local school boards. State law limits such elections to nonpartisan ballot initiatives.

“If the problem we’re trying to solve is turnout, we think there is a way to do that,” said Mark Tallman, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “The system is not fundamentally broken.”

Clay Barker, the state GOP’s executive director, is skeptical that mail-in ballot elections by themselves would boost turnout.

“If you’re not going to participate, you’re just going to get another piece of mail,” he said.

But Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, a Democrat, noted that turnout was 34 percent in a mail ballot election in January on property taxes levied by the Lawrence school district, while it was 11 percent for a similar issue in 2008. Turnout on Tuesday in Douglas County was about 16 percent.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org .

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Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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