In all the legitimate angst over the pitiful voter turnout for Kansas City’s elections, don’t lose sight of an important fact.
The few voters who did bother to decide who’s going to serve as mayor and City Council members generally selected a solid group of leaders.
That’s what really matters, because Mayor Sly James and the council will face a large number of challenges in the next four years.
Coming off a successful first term, James should get plenty of help from the only returning council members — Scott Wagner, Scott Taylor and Jermaine Reed.
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The new council will have nine new members, but four have prior political experience: Jolie Justus and Kevin McManus served with distinction in the Missouri General Assembly, and Teresa Loar and Katheryn Shields already have been council members. Shields also was a longtime Jackson County Executive.
It’s particularly encouraging that the new council will feature a well-qualified and energizing group of elected officials from the urban core. Along with Reed, newcomers Quinton Lucas, Alissia Canady and Lee Barnes can be expected to help the council step up efforts to attract economic development and wage a more effective battle against neighborhood blight in the heart of the city.
As a sidelight, it was gratifying on Tuesday to see the abysmal failure of a misguided effort by the political group Freedom Inc. to drum out Housing Court Judge Todd Wilcher.
But the fact that only 11.3 percent of registered voters cast ballots Tuesday already has led to discussion that the city should scrap the new schedule of voting in April and June, which was a radical departure from the former February/March schedule.
Not so fast. This was an unusual election. There was very little interest in the mayoral race, because James had locked it up with a strong first term and the absence of opponents with real credentials. Also, the citywide council races were uncompetitive, with the exception of Shields’ narrow victory over incumbent Jim Glover.
Another factor: Most Kansas Citians think James has the city headed in the right direction, so why bother going to the polls?
The turnout could be far different in 2019, when term limits kick James out of office, setting off a scramble among a potentially long line of successors. That’s what happened in 1991, 1999 and 2007, when sitting mayors could not run for another term.
It is true Tuesday’s abysmal voter turnout could haunt the city for the next four years because it will be far easier to place initiative petitions on the ballot.
The city charter requires a successful petition to have signatures from registered voters equal to 5 percent of the mayoral turnout, which was 34,086 this week. That means it could take just 1,705 people to force the entire city to vote on an issue, which is less than half the current requirement of almost 3,600 people.
James and the council will have to avoid getting people stirred up enough to try to pass legislation through the initiative petition — or else be ready to convince voters to fend off bad ideas at the polls.
By Wednesday, James and others were talking about how to woo more people to take part in Kansas City’s elections. The state of Missouri could help by allowing convenient early voting.
Local voters can always change the city charter, too. If the initiative petition problem becomes too severe — or if people really want to ditch the April/June voting schedule — those plans can be put on a future ballot.
That’s how democracy is supposed to work: Let the voters decide — or at least the few who care enough to show up.