Friday, February 28, 2014

Eliminating an election cycle: A good idea but a terrible approach

Two decades ago, Kentucky effectively got rid of "off-year" elections by extending the terms of local officeholders by one year in a one-off deal to combine local elections with the congressional midterm races. Now, local politicians run for county judge-executive, sheriff and other local offices when members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Kentucky General Assembly (all representatives and half of the senators) are elected. This eliminated an election cycle, saving state and local governments some money. The "off-year" election traditionally drew the lowest voter turnout numbers, and by adding local races to the legislative contests, interest increased in those elections.

Now, something similar is being considered to eliminate yet another election cycle in the Bluegrass. A bill is currently under consideration in the General Assembly to lengthen the terms of statewide offices from four to five years for one time only, to make them coincide with the presidential election.

That's an idea we have supported for years, but this particular proposal has a fatal flaw. When the election for a five-year term for county offices took place in 1993, everyone knew that the people elected then would be serving an extra year for that term. The proposal currently under consideration for statewide offices would extend the current terms, making statewide elections occur in tandem with the 2016 presidential race.

There's no way we could support anything that would result in Steve Beshear staying in office one minute longer than is currently scheduled. Having him as governor an extra year would be disastrous.

Would knowing in 2011 that Beshear would be serving for five years have made a difference in the election outcome? It's highly doubtful, given the weaknesses of the David Williams-Richie Farmer ticket that have become apparent in hindsight. But we think people would have wanted to know that the people they were voting for would be serving five years instead of four.

Democrats offered an objection to this measure that we didn't expect. They think that electing Kentucky's governor on the same ballot as the president will hurt their chances, since Kentucky tends to vote Republican in federal races. While that may be true, it could work the other way. Kentuckians tend to pay more attention to the governor's race than any federal races, so perhaps having the gubernatorial election on the ballot would help the Democrats' presidential and congressional candidates.

Or, maybe the next state terms could be shortened to three years to have them coincide with the midterm elections. That would also serve to eliminate an election cycle and would let voters know well in advance how long their next governor's term would be.

Another advantage would be that an incoming governor would be taking office in the middle of a biennium. A state budget would already be in place, and the new governor wouldn't be faced with putting together an administration and developing a budget at the same time, which is currently the case. Having a year under his or her belt would give the governor plenty of time to become familiar with the state's financial situation.

If the five-year term is applied to the winners of the 2015 statewide races, making the next gubernatorial election coincide with the 2020 presidential election, we're all for it. If a single three-year term is the preferred solution, we're on board with that too. We just can't support a scenario that lengthens the current terms to eliminate an election cycle. The voters didn't vote for that, and we're not sure the state could survive another year of Steve Beshear.

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