When Kansas City tried out a new City Council election calendar this year, moving the primary and general dates later to April and June, political leaders hoped it would lead to higher voter turnout.
Boy, were they wrong.
Tuesday’s general election brought out fewer than 34,100 voters in the mayor’s race, or just 11 percent of the city’s registered voters. It was the lowest turnout since at least 1975, according to Kansas City election board records.
So Mayor Sly James and some other council members, both veterans and newly elected, are already saying the city should revisit the change and possibly talk about trying something different.
Never miss a local story.
Even as he celebrated his re-election Tuesday night, James was pondering whether the new election calendar needed to be adjusted.
“I know this is the first year of a change in terms of when the elections are held,” James said at his campaign gathering at Union Station. “We need to examine that and find out whether or not this date or this time of year is the best time of year to have an election. Maybe this is not the right time.”
Others were more emphatic that it did not work well.
“We’re not used to voting in June, ever,” said 2nd District at-large Councilman Ed Ford, who is term-limited out but was involved in helping other candidates running for office. “We need to take another look at it, based on the abysmal turnout.”
Jim Glover, who lost his re-election campaign for the 4th District at-large seat, said he discovered it’s hard to get people to pay attention and vote when school is out and families are focusing on summer and vacations.
“People don’t remember to vote (in June),” agreed 3rd District Councilman Jermaine Reed, who won re-election. “I think we may have to reconsider it.”
Several other council members who won also advocated discussing the calendar and low turnout once the new council term starts Aug. 1. Any further calendar revision would require voter approval.
Turnout matters, especially because it determines how many signatures are needed for grass-roots petition initiatives. Since voting in this year’s mayoral race plummeted compared with the 2011 election, petition initiatives will now need about 1,700 valid signatures, compared with nearly 3,600 in the past four years.
The election calendar change to April and June was not accidental.
For 60 years, Kansas Citians had gone to the polls every four years for a late March general election and a primary four weeks earlier to choose their mayor and council.
But candidates and some voters complained the weather was often terrible. And frequently the city had to pay for another election just one week later, in April, for ballot questions that shared the ballot with school board races and City Council races in other municipalities.
So people wondered, why not at least hold the Kansas City primary or the general election in April? It could save money and maybe move the campaign to warmer days.
A charter review commission considered that very recommendation in 2013. But City Attorney Bill Geary told the commission that the city’s four-week election calendar was grandfathered in. If they recommended altering the calendar, they would have to comply with a state law that now requires more than 10 weeks between a primary and general election so election authorities can print new ballots.
That meant that if the primary was held on the regular April election day, the general election would have to be 11 weeks later, in late June.
That’s just what the charter review commission recommended in 2014.
“We believe that moving the elections to later in the year will make weather conditions on election days more favorable and hopefully foster greater voter participation,” the commission said.
Voters agreed to the charter change in 2014, and the new calendar for the 2015 elections was set.
Veteran campaign consultant Steve Glorioso, who served on the charter review commission, said Wednesday the city shouldn’t rush to make a change. He attributed the terrible turnout not to the new calendar but to the fact that Sly James didn’t have a serious challenger in the mayor’s race.
James defeated Vincent “General” Lee, 87 percent to 13 percent.
Glorioso noted that Kansas City voters do go to the polls when mayor’s races are interesting and competitive. For example, when Dick Berkley ran against Bruce Watkins in 1979, more than 110,000 voted. And when Emanuel Cleaver faced off against Bob Lewellen in 1991, more than 94,000 people voted.
The next lowest turnout to Tuesday was in 2003, when Kay Barnes defeated comedy club entrepreneur Stanford Glazer in a race that drew 52,500 voters.
Glorioso also said he thought the new calendar was good for first-time candidates, such as 1st District winner Heather Hall and 5th District winner Alissia Canady, who had time to campaign door to door in recent months.
But even Canady said she thought the 11 weeks between the April and June elections were problematic.
“It was very long and I think, because of the length, it was more expensive than it needed to be,” she said, adding that she had to remind all the people who had voted for her in April to return in June.
She said that when she went door to door, people told her they had already voted for her and they couldn’t understand why they had to vote again. She said the milder spring weather didn’t make up for that problem.
Teresa Loar, who served on the City Council from 1995 to 2003 and who won election to the 2nd District at-large seat Tuesday, also said she preferred the former 28-day calendar to the new longer calendar.
“People forget,” Loar said. “They don’t understand why they need to vote again.”
But it’s not clear that the city could revert back to the old 28-day calendar because state law now requires the 10-week window.
Some people wonder why Kansas City doesn’t do what nearby cities do. Independence holds its council primary in early February and its council general election on the April date. It drew 22 percent turnout in its April 2014 election, according to the Jackson County election board.
North Kansas City had its most recent mayor/council race in April 2013 (no primary) and drew a 30 percent turnout, according to the Clay County election board.
But April isn’t a guarantee of great turnout. Lee’s Summit held its mayor/council election in April 2014 and drew only 10 percent turnout.
The Star’s Dave Helling contributed to this report.