Thursday, February 16, 2012

Election Fatigue and the Move to November

Last spring's city election turnout of less than 10 percent invited thoughts of moving the city elections to the November even years, piling on with the presidential or gubernatorial elections and riding the coat tails of the higher turnout.

You won't get any argument from me that we could benefit from fewer elections.  We've averaged six a year since I've been here.  We just wrapped up the 43rd in my time and are working on number 44 February 28.

Of the 44, however, 23 were non-scheduled special elections.  Many were mail-ballot elections.

So, if cost synergies provide the motive for consolidating elections, I say, look first at the low-hanging fruit.

That fruit comes in 23 unscheduled elections that could have been free to taxpayers, or nearly free.  The items on the ballots might have tipped a second ballot page or otherwise created a cost, but generally they represent costs that could have been avoided.

In Kansas, countywide elections are completely funded by the county.  Less-than-countywide elections share costs with the county.  The county pays for sunk costs and the jurisdiction pays all incremental costs. Postage, paper, and election workers are the primary incremental costs.

If, instead of cost synergies, turnout is the motive for consolidation, that's a bit iffy.  It's likely that the races toward the bottom of the ballot will have a significant drop-off in voters.  Still, even a 50 percent November turnout surely will result in city council votes of more than 10 percent by the time voters make their way to the end of the ballot.

We've seen this at the county, where a good number of voters for the U.S. Senate, for instance, didn't vote for their county commissioner.

Still, consolidating elections seems wise to me.  There are likely political pros and cons, and that would have to be sorted by the Kansas Legislature.  The House is considering a very long bill for this very thing and I provided input to the fiscal note yesterday.

On the surface, the concept combines the highest turnout election with the most complicated one to administer.  In the spring elections, we have to rotate candidate names and this results in more ballot styles.  We already have 1,500 different types of ballots in August and 500 in November.

The biggest issue I see beyond resource needs would be that communities truly would need to prohibited from chartering out of the change.  Otherwise, all we will do is have city elections in November AND April.

That brings up a different issue that we election administrators know.  Whenever there is a question of, "When we will move to this? (such as Internet voting)," we know the question really is, "When we will add this to what we are doing?"

Advance voting, for instance, didn't eliminate voting at the polls.  It just added to the repertoire.  Internet voting, if it happens, likely won't replace voting at the polls.  It will be an additional item on the voting menu.

Back on point:

The bill looks like it attempts to address the possibility of jurisdictions opting out of the move to November.  The other real issue from our standpoint comes down to resources.

This change would require staffing increases.  As typed a couple of times, we're steady at the same number of staff members we had 20 years ago and we're facing being unable to backfill two who retire in 2013.

Forget the soft talk of "unfunded mandates."  If the bill doesn't require that counties fund the staffing needs as proposed by county election officers (regardless if the state or county pays), this move will fail.  Even if the bill spells out that our office must add three persons, our county processes will still require that we sleep on it, we pray on it, demonstrate six alternatives considered to not add the resources, and, all in all, nearly tie up a full-time person (me) for several months before approval.

Or, realistically, we'd be told that while those persons were required by legislation, our existing staff wasn't.  So, deal.

One benefit of the April election from my standpoint is workload distribution.  That's not a good reason to keep elections in April but it is a factor when considering moving them.

Elections are expensive, and too many elections fatigue voters and lower turnout.  Consolidating elections, in my view, is absolutely the right discussion to be having.  I don't know if this bill is the answer, but hopefully it can lead to a meaningful dialog and a long-term solution.