State lawmakers are hearing debate on two bills that would change how Dodge City runs its elections due to low turnout at city elections across the state. Register to vote by March 11 to vote in the City Commission election.
Dodge City residents have until March 11 to register in time for the April 1 City Commission election, the first contested election since 2008.
Seven candidates are vying for three seats on the city government. Voters will be able to select up to three candidates on the ballot. The top two winners will receive four-year terms in office, the third place winner will get a two-year term.
National statistics indicate that municipal elections off the federal election calendar draw under half the number of voters of presidential elections, and about two-thirds the turnout of federal midterm elections.
In competitive years, Dodge City's elections are below even that low bar.
The last contested city election, in which four candidates competed for the three seats in 2008, was decided with 1,622 votes of the possible 11,626 registered voters in the city, a turnout of 13.95 percent.
A relative boom year for the city election came in 2006 with 29.1 percent of the voters came out, though that ballot included a question regarding the school district. Not all USD 443 voters are Dodge City voters. The March 2006 city primary election, in which the slate of Commission candidates was whittled down from nine to six, drew 21.2 percent of the city's voters.
In 2004, the March primary election drew a higher portion of registered voters, 22.02 percent, than the April election, in which 18.9 percent of voters came to the polls. Again, nine candidates were reduced to six through the primary.
In the last two city elections voters were apparently apathetic to which of the three candidates for the three seats would receive the short term. In neither year did turnout top 3.5 percent of the number of registered voters.
In comparison, the 2012 presidential election drew 55.12 percent of Ford County voters and the 2010 midterm pulled 39.95 percent.
Two bills ostensibly aimed at increasing local voting participation were introduced in Topeka this session. The House bill, HB 2227, would move all municipal elections to the first Tuesday following the first Monday of November of odd-numbered years. Primary elections would take place on the first Tuesday in August.
A provision of the bill would have allowed cities to change the form of government by ordinance. That element was killed in committee before receiving the committee's recommendation.
The second bill, SB 211, will receive Senate committee hearings in March. It would align municipal elections to the federal and county election calendar. It would also make all municipal elections partisan, including cities, extension districts, community colleges and unified school districts.
Coalitions of city and county governments have generally opposed the bills, including the Southwest Kansas Coalition in which Dodge City is a member, and the Kansas Association of Counties, of which Ford County is a member.
Ford County Clerk Sharon Seibel is adamantly opposed to the measures.
As for aligning municipal elections to the federal calendar as with the Senate bill: "That would be a really bad thing because it'd be a ballot that's three or four pages, which is confusing for people and hard to track," Seibel said.
It would also create longer periods for ballot questions to get answered, as there would not be an earlier election to attach the question, Seibel said. That is, unless elected entities decided to hold a special election, an expensive option.