Kansas SOS Kris Kobach Proposes Reforms to Strengthen Parties, Not Elections

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has submitted two new election reforms to the Kansas Legislature that are a direct response to the 2014 U.S. Senate race, where Republican incumbent Pat Roberts was almost defeated by independent Greg Orman. Public polling before the midterm elections suggest that all the statewide incumbents, including Kobach, were vulnerable — something Kobach wants to remedy with new rules for candidate withdrawals and reinstating straight-ticket voting.

In the 2014 U.S. Senate race, Democratic candidate Chad Taylor withdrew his name from the ballot by the state-mandated deadline and the Kansas Democratic Party had no intention of selecting a replacement for him. Taylor wasn’t polling well and his ability to raise funds was lackluster. However, the move was mostly seen by Republicans as a back-door deal to give independent candidate Greg Orman a head-to-head contest with Sen. Roberts.

Kobach, a Republican, insisted that Taylor’s withdrawal did not meet the legal requirements, which forced Taylor to seek intervention from the Kansas Supreme Court. The court sided with Taylor, and Kobach’s efforts to keep him on the ballot were defeated.

The new proposal only allows for a name to be removed from the general election ballot in the event of death, and only if the candidate dies between the primary and September 1 (about two months before the general election). It also requires the candidate’s party to nominate a replacement candidate.

Such an election law is not entirely unprecedented. In 2000, this kind of “locked-in” balloting law led to the posthumous election of Mel Carnahan in Missouri to the U.S. Senate. Carnahan died only a few weeks prior to the election with no provision in the law for replacement of candidates.

There are some obvious constitutional questions that surround a law that requires a candidate to pretty much sign his or her name in blood when he or she declares their candidacy. A candidate may want to withdraw his or her name from a race for a number of legitimate reasons, including personal, financial, and medical, but Kobach is only interested in making sure something like the 2014 U.S. Senate race, which threatened the partisan status quo, doesn’t happen again.

Prior to the 20th century, most states had laws where the voter cast a ballot for the party’s slate, not for individual candidates. Third parties thrived under this system because candidates could be included on the slates of multiple parties by promising some adherence to the core platform of the party.

From roughly 1890 to 1920, the Republican and Democratic Parties lobbied state governments to eliminate slate voting, as well as institute anti-fusion laws that prevent most candidates from running under multiple party platforms.

Currently, twelve states have straight-ticket voting. This is a hybrid of the older slate method, where voters have the option of voting for every candidate of a party by checking one option on the ballot.

Kobach argues that voters often only participate in “important” races and issues while leaving down-ballot races blank. Further, it cuts down on the time it takes to vote to a matter of seconds, which would speed up the process and reduce waiting time.

Yet the problem is that the partisan solution to “fixing” elections is to approach it like making an assembly line more efficient. Instead of making a better product for voters, major parties act like the industrial foreman who is willing to cut corners if it means being able to make a little more money. To them, the problem is not the election law that diminishes voting power or limits choice; it is that voters are just not getting in and out of their polling locations fast enough.

The length of the line and the waiting time are not the biggest issues facing elections and yet that is the only area members of both major parties want to focus on because the truth is neither side is interested in improving elections for an evolving electorate that is moving away from political parties altogether.

While opposed by several state Democrats, it is unlikely that the new measure would damage either major party at the polls in national races. Kansas ties with three other states for the lowest percentage of split-ticket voting in national races. However, it will hurt independent campaigns that focus more on specific issues and reforms.

Kobach’s plan will make an independent’s attempt to run for office more difficult by further isolating the candidate. Rather than just running against two or three other candidates, the independent is now bucking the entire party system.

In smaller, local races, independent campaigns can win based on the personal appeal of the candidate, not the candidate’s party affiliation. However, this does not carry over to state and federal partisan races, where major-party candidates play to the party identification of voters.

As independent candidate Greg Orman stated during the U.S. Senate election, “party affiliation is often more of an historical identification.” He continued by stating that voters strongly identify with parties, but often this identification is not rooted in the issues. Many belong to a party because of family traditions or based on the commonly held beliefs of their friends.

The straight-ticket option targets this party identification, making elections less about issues and the candidates themselves, and more about political parties.

This move is a continuation of Kobach’s long-maintained crusade in reforming voting in Kansas and other states. While operating under the premise of protecting the integrity of the ballot, many see each step as making voting more difficult in order to strengthen his own party.

The push to implement straight-ticket voting in Kansas will only increase partisan politics and encourage voters to not fully engage in the process nor investigate each particular issue or candidate on the ballot.

New elections laws should increase voter engagement and represent voters as a whole. Rather than ideas that highlight party differences, ideas should be brought forth that give the maximum representation to the people — not the parties.