Friday, April 10, 2009

Local Control: Government by the few, for the few

If an election day passes and no one votes, did it really happen?

That’s the question many people might be asking in the wake of Tuesday’s results from the Spring General Election here in Kansas. It’s a scenario we have seen before – despite historically high turnouts in the recent November election and a relatively consistent solid block of voters in August primaries, most Kansans seem to ignore or are simply unaware of the fact very important elections follow just a few months later on the first Tuesday in April.

The numbers are staggering. In Johnson County alone, approximately 285,000 people voted in the 2008 November election. That number falls dramatically for the 2008 August primary, when approximately 77,000 people voted. What’s truly staggering is that less than half that number – 32,000 – voted in Spring General Election on Tuesday. That means around 80% of the people who voted in November did not vote in April.

For political consultants and campaign managers, extremely low turnout is a simple math game, and can either be a recipe for success or a road to consistent losses. However, for those concerned more about the policy consequences of elections than the mere political scoreboard, it can be a road over the ideological cliff.

What’s ironic about these tiny numbers is that they seem to fly in the face of the constant barrage we hear from Topeka each legislative session about the overriding need for local control -- we consistently hear how important is that we leave as much authority as possible to city councils and local school boards. While this principle of “the locals know best” may indeed be sound in theory, when only 9% of the people vote, it can also be potentially precarious in terms of accurately representing the views of the community as a whole. When only 32,000 turnout in a county with a voting population 10x that, one segment of the voting populace can easily be disproportionately represented, skewing public policy in a direction inconsistent with the actual opinions of the public as a whole. Add to that the fact that these local elections are non-partisan, allowing candidates to hide their party label, and we essentially end up with government by the few, for the few.

This very scenario occurred just this past Tuesday in Johnson County, Kansas.. In two different cases, we saw a specific segment of the voting population – liberal elites – oust candidates that in most elections, would have normally been victorious had turnout been at an August or November level.

The first case was for the Olathe School Board, where the most hotly contested race was between conservative incumbent Jim Churchman and liberal Democrat challenger Amy Martin. Churchman was endorsed by a myriad of conservative elected officials who have no problem getting elected in Olathe in August and November, including Kay O’Connor, who had been in six separate elections, won large majorities of Olathe voters. Martin, on the other hand, was endorsed by a range of liberal groups and individuals such as the NEA and Ron Wimmer, who had just a few months before lost 55-45 against Senator Julia Lynn – and actually sent out a campaign piece attacking Churchman because of the fact Kay O’Connor – again, a six time winner, endorsed him. Olathe is known for being a conservative community and in August or November, Churchman would have defeated Martin.

Yet, in this case, Martin defeated Churchman 53-47. Why? Because only 8,000 people voted, and the liberal public school lobby and its supporters, while just a decent sized minority in most elections, make up a much larger chunk of the electorate in the low turnout April elections, when conservative voters do not have a history of turning out.

The second case was the race for the Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees. Voters could vote for up to four candidates out of the ten on the ballot. Conservative Benjamin Hodge was one of the incumbents, and had served as State Representative from Olathe from 2007-2008. Though all of Johnson County is not as conservative as Hodge, one would think that Hodge would at least finish in the Top 4.

Yet, Hodge finished 6th, narrowly behind 5th place but 2,700 votes behind the 4th place finisher. What’s interesting is that the four winners were the four candidates Sun Publications columnist Steve Rose, a well known liberal, endorsed in a column several weeks before the election. It’s also notable that in the same column in which he endorsed the four winners, he also specifically said to vote for anyone but Hodge. Again, just like in Olathe, because moderate to liberal voters in Johnson County represented such a large segment of the 32,000 people who voted Tuesday, Steve Rose’s column served as a voter guide for those voters, and the results reflect that reality.

The first question some will ask is, how did Churchman and Hodge get on their respective boards in the first place? The reason is because in April 2005, the marriage amendment was on the ballot, and thousands of people who do not otherwise vote in Spring elections did, and those voters, more conservative by nature, voted for Hodge and Churchman as well. In fact, 99,000 people voted in Johnson County that election, more than three times what they did Tuesday. In Olathe specifically, 16,000 people voted in 2005 versus just about 8,000 this year.

In their specific cases – in 2005, Hodge actually finished first in the April balloting with about 45,000 votes. This year, he only had about 8,000 votes. For Churchman, the result was flipped – he won with 53% of the vote in 2005.

The moral of this story is that voters’ decisions not to vote in April have a dramatic impact on the outcome of those elections, thus severely impacting policy decisions. The Olathe School Board is now dominated by liberal elites who were funded and elected by those with stances on issues well to the left of Olathe on both social and fiscal issues. The Johnson County Community College board is now completely governed by individuals who brazenly disregarded open meetings statutes and insulted a fellow board member – Hodge – who blew the whistle on their shenanigans. Furthermore, from a political standpoint, the domination of local boards and councils by liberals gives them a large bench on which to groom candidates for higher office.

In the case of conservative voters, who typically are recognized for their propensity to vote, it is a mystery to some why they choose not to vote in local elections, when so many critical issues – tax rates, fiscal policy, education policy, even social policy – are decided on city councils and school boards. In fact, one could make an argument that these local units of government have a much more direct effect on our daily lives, as they decide everything from what books our child can read to how many pets we can have in our homes.

The reasons are a combination of political history, media coverage, and timing. The conservative movement in Kansas, as an entity, has only existed for about 20-30 years, and has largely focused on federal and state elections, not organizing or fielding candidates for most local elections. As a result, the average conservative voter isn’t voting in the spring, essentially ceding those elections to moderates and liberals. Secondly, when compared to the more high profile state and federal elections, the amount of coverage given to local issues is small, often no more than an article recapping a board or council meeting. As such, most voters, including conservatives, are simply unaware of what is going on. Finally, spring elections are held just on the heels of usually quite intense November elections, and when you combine that with the legislative session in Topeka, the conservative movement is not paying attention to local races through a combination of exhaustion and distraction.

What is the solution to this problem?

One approach might be a legislative one – moving spring elections to fall, to coincide with state and federal elections. The argument here would be that it is going to be very difficult to spur any vast increase in turnout for April elections. While a concentrated effort may increase it a bit in a given election, it is only likely to boost it by 5-10%, while moving the elections to the fall would dramatically increase participation automatically – and would also reduce the cost of holding elections. The counter to this would be that city and school board elections might get washed away in the sea of coverage for state and federal elections.

If that does not occur, the only other way turnout will increase is a long term, comprehensive approach to spring elections by conservatives, much like has been done for August and November elections. This includes more alternative media outlets such as blogs and other online news sources, as well as increased candidate recruitment, and, most importantly, a long term grassroots strategy to inform voters who typically do not vote in spring elections why they should – and then motivating them to actually vote.

In order for either of these solutions to come to fruition, it is going to take action by leaders who, after one November election is over, do not immediately move on to the next November election – but rather decide to take local elections seriously, recognizing the profound impact city councils, school boards, and other elected governing boards have on our lives, our children’s lives, and our pocketbooks – not to mention our culture as a community.

Our nation is a system of checks and balances – and the most important check of all is the informed and participating voter. When that check is removed, the usually good and noble principle of local control can quickly become dangerous and corrupting. No matter what level of government, it is essential that elected officials have a fear of the voter. Currently, in Johnson County, that fear does not exist, and the practical consequence has been to cede control of our schools and cities to individuals with a very much different worldview than the people they are supposed to represent.