Lawmaker wants to merge KC election boards

A Missouri state lawmaker says he wants to change a decades-old quirk in local election procedures that he calls costly and confusing.

Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, has introduced legislation that would merge Kansas City’s election board with Jackson County’s. If it passed, every Jackson County voter — even those who live inside Kansas City — would register, cast ballots and see those votes counted under the supervision of the same entity.

“There’s just too much inconsistency between two different election boards in the same county,” LeVota said. “Two different systems. Two different ways to register. Two different places to register.”

Election officials at both boards, though, are wary. A merger, they said, would be complicated and could end up costing more than expected.

“There are a lot of logistics problems,” said Tammy Brown, Republican director of the Jackson County board. “I don’t think it’s a very good idea.”

Under current law, a four-person board oversees elections for 191,000 voters who live in the parts of Kansas City that lie within Jackson County. A similar but separate board runs elections for 230,000 voters in the rest of the county.

Each board picks two election directors, one from each major party, who are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the election office. The two boards, one county setup is the only such arrangement in Missouri.

LeVota thinks savings from the merger could be significant.

“This is an opportunity for us to have a countywide election authority with consistency, and some money savings,” he said.

The Jackson County board spends roughly $1.6 million for routine administration each year, money provided by all Jackson County taxpayers. The Kansas City board spends $2 million, half from Kansas City’s budget and half from Jackson County’s.

But the election boards also charge their cities and the state for the actual costs of printing ballots and day-of-election needs. Kansas City, for example, will pay the Kansas City board to run the upcoming April election.

Megan Thornberry, chairwoman of the Kansas City board, said she is willing to examine LeVota’s proposal but wants the process to slow down.

“We’d really like some time to study it,” she said after Thursday’s election board meeting. “If it makes sense to do, we want to know, but if it doesn’t make sense, we need to look at that too.”

The two election boards now use widely different balloting systems with different counting procedures and software. Putting those systems under one roof would be a challenge, election officials said.

And Kansas City board members are worried about urban voters, who might have farther to travel to register and cast absentee ballots if election offices are moved from their current location at Union Station.

But LeVota said a merged board could open two offices — one in Kansas City, the other in the county. Jackson County now operates courthouses in downtown Kansas City and Independence.

Kansas Citians who live in Clay and Platte counties register and vote with election offices in those counties, just like residents in other cities in the state. That process would not change if the LeVota bill became law.

A hearing on the proposal is set for Monday afternoon in Jefferson City, election officials said.