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The state of small "d" democracy in Kansas

By Stuart Elliott
Opinion | August 4, 2014
With the August 5 primary only a day away, some thoughts of the state of democracy in Kansas seem appropriate. An article in Friday's Wichita Eagle predicting  low turnout for Tuesday's primary, despite heated US Senate and House Republican primaries, indicates that there is a real problem. Here are some thoughts.

 The biggest issue, in my opinion, is the restrictive voter identification laws enacted by Secretary of Sate Kris Kobach, but there are others.

Another problem is outsider dark money which has poured into Kansas elections at the last minute with minimal transparency, minimal honesty, and minimal respect for the facts.

Kansas has a closed primary, only one of 12 in the nation.  That means that you have to be a registered Democrat or Republican to vote in the respective primary.  However, the chair of the party can allow independents to vote in their primary. In recent elections Democrats had allowed this. This year the KDP, at its February state convention,  joined the Republicans in adopting the more restrictive policy.

The Kansas legislature at the prodding of Kris Kobach made it more difficult for voters to change party registration. In the past this could be done up to 21 days before the election. Tlhis year the deadline was moved back to July 1 and in future elections it will be June 1 Unaffiliated voters can still choose a Republican or Democratic ballot at the polling place on primary  day and thereby register with that party and vote in their primary.

Kansas Democrats have filed a full Federal and state-wide slate.  In 2010, Democrats had no candidate in the prohibitively Republican Big First District and no candidate in the potential swing 3rd Congressional District. (The 3rd gave Obama 48.8 percent in 2008 and 44.3 percent in 2012.)

Far too many Kansas voters won't have a choice on their ballot for the state legislature this November. Forty-seven seats, nearly 40 percent of the state's 125 House seats, will  have only one candidate on the ballot.  This includes 38 Republicans.  And, of these, only 16 have a Republican primary challenger.  Also, two Republicans will face only a Libertarian challenger.  Nine Democrats will face no challenger, and two will have only a Libertarian challenger.

The same problem crops up in the State Board of Eduction races where Democrats filed candidates for only one of the five seats up this year; they filed for only two when the same set of seats were up in 2010. And, for three of the different set of five seats up in 2012.

It would take a detailed analysis to figure out what is behind this low state of competitive elections.  From what I can tell it's not just a Kansas problem and it's not new.  A 2005 article reported that "state legislative races were even less competitive [than Congressional races.] Nationwide, 40 percent of the more than 7,000 races were uncontested."

Parties can put energy into recruiting as many candidates as possible, even in districts that are very strongly partisan for the other party.  Or, they can concentrate resources on a smaller number of swing districts. I don't know if a switch like can explain the poor number of Democratic candidates, but it is certainly possible.

Campaign finance reform, some form of public financing of legislative campaigns might increase the number of districts with races.  One possibility, for example, has had a system where candidates can get public financing after they show a basis of support, raising, say, $50 each for 100 district voters. Arizona has a system somewhat like this.

Ballot access for parties and candidates is the other side of the right to vote.  On the positive side, the Kansas legislature passed a law allowing out of state canvassers for petition drives.  (It is not obvious to me that this is a good development, but courts have been ruling this way so it seems a positive.)

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach changed the interpretation of state law making it more difficult for minor parties to remain on the ballot and ruled the Reform Party off the ballot. In 2012, Kobach argued successfully that Kansas did not have to allow voters register in unqualified parties that are active in the state.

To be established as a new political party in Kansas, the group must present petitions must be signed by qualified electors equal in number to at least two percent of the total vote cast for all candidates for governor at the last preceding general election. In Kansas, currently, that would mean 16,777 valid petition signatures.

To nominate an independent candidate for statewide evidence takes just 5,000 signatures.

To maintain party ballot status, a qualified party must get one percent of the vote in the lowest voted race it contests. In 2010, that threshold would have been 6,772 in the Commissioner of Insurance race.

If a minor party gets five percent of the vote in the Governor's race it will become a "major party" and thereby hold primaries instead of conventions.  That is a major goal of Kansas Libertarians  in the belief that being port of a statewide primary along with Republicans and Democrats will give them the potential for further growth. They may be helped by the demise of the Reform Party as there have been several statewide races where the LP +RP vote came to 4.4 percent (2010 Governor) or 4.2 percent (2006 Secretary of State).  Libertarian Patrick Wilber received 4.2 percent in the three-way 2006 Insurance Commissioner race.  With Libertarian nominee Keen A. Umbehr drawing five percent in the latest SurveyUSA poll that Libertarian goal doesn't appear unreasonable, although there is usually a fall off from polls to election results.

Perhaps if the Libertarian Party achieved "major party" status (with five percent of the vote) they might field more than seven legislative candidates they have in 2012. And, that could increase participation.

Perhaps if there were additional parties--a Moderate Party,  Constitution Party, a Working Families Party, or others there might be more competitive elections, a higher turnout, and better state government.

But, I think, there is a limit to the potential of additional minor parties to enhance participation and increase democracy.  Kansas is one of a vast majority of states that ban fusion voting.  By allowing a candidate to aggregate votes on more than party line, fusion voting avoids the spoiler affect when voting for a more conservative (liberal) candidate takes votes away from a slightly less conservative (liberal) candidate and thereby elects a third more liberal (conservative) candidate.   Fusion enables minor parties to influence election results and policy by offering to endorse or nominate a major party's candidate.

 Wichita activists have gathered signatures to place a referendum on the ballot to decriminalize marijuana possession.  This could have the potential to increase turnout among voters who usually stay at home during off-year elections.

The real path to improving Kansas democracy will be based on re-invigorating the Democratic Party, the growth of grass-roots progressive organizations like Kansas People's Action, and a more creative and energized political effort by teachers and other unions.

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