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Proposal for 2024 presidential primary in Kansas draws bipartisan support in Senate

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By Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector

 

TOPEKA, Kan. — The votes were cast and a bipartisan majority of the Kansas Senate supported spending more than $4 million to host in March 2024 the state’s first simultaneous Republican and Democratic presidential primary in more than 40 years.

The state’s two major political parties in Kansas have generally deployed since the 1980s a caucus system for determining candidate favorites in presidential races. In 2020, however, the GOP called off the caucus due to popularity of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. Due to COVID-19, Democrats conducted a mail-in primary in 2020 won by then-Vice President Joe Biden.

The Kansas Senate voted 28-12 to pass House Bill 2053, which would initiate plans for a presidential primary election March 19, 2024. The Kansas House has yet to consider legislation authorizing the presidential primary. The Senate’s bill would only apply to the 2024 election cycle.

Sen. Mike Thompson, a Republican from Shawnee, said he was intrigued to learn whether Kansans were inclined to favor the straightforward process of a presidential ballot primary or preferred the sometimes-rowdy caucus system with meetings scattered across the state and candidate surrogates working crowds for support.

“The big thing is there would be thousands more that would have access to having a say over who Kansas selects for the presidential primary position,” Thompson said. “We always complain that they overlook us. We’re out here in flyover country. This may alleviate some of those issues.”

Under the Senate bill, either Republican or Democratic parties in Kansas could opt out of the presidential primary by sending a letter to the secretary of state prior to Dec. 1, 2023. The candidate filing deadline would be 60 days before to the 2024 primary. Presidential candidates could get their name on Kansas ballots by paying a $10,000 filing or securing 5,000 signatures of registered voters.

Sen. Caryn Tyson, the Parker Republican, proposed an amendment to the bill — rejected on an unrecorded vote — to move all Kansas primary elections to the second Tuesday in June. She said the state’s presidential preference primary would occur nearly three months later than Thompson envisioned, but the cost would be embedded in the regular political primary process.

Thumbs-down perspective

Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe, said the caucus system functioned well and the anticipated cost of the single-issue statewide election was extravagant given other demands on the state treasury.

“I’m just thinking what good we could do with that $4-$5 million,” Olson said. “We’re going to have water issues in the future. We’ve got special-needs kids who need services.”

Clay Barker, deputy assistant secretary of state in Kansas, said Secretary of State Scott Schwab was neutral on the Senate’s election reform bill. He said conversion from a caucus to an election would require adjustment of voters, election administrative processes and political party practices.

“Voters would have a different experience in the presidential primary than they would in a primary or general election. These changes may create voter confusion about election processes at a time when we are all striving to ensure voter confidence in the election process,” Barker said.

Barker cautioned a U.S. Supreme Court decision held that a state couldn’t mandate or control the method used to determine allocation of state delegates to presidential candidates at national political conventions. Theoretically, he said, a political party could determine delegates “regardless of the presidential preference primary voter outcome. Such an election would be non-binding.”

Rick Piepho, Harvey County clerk and chairman of the elections committee of the Kansas County Clerks and Election Officials Association, said the organization didn’t believe a presidential primary was an “appropriate use of county or state resources and funds.”

Isidro Marino, a college student from Garden City, told a Senate committee the bill could create confusion among voters, lead to their disenfranchisement and contribute to a lack of trust in the electoral process. Marino said the bill “may seem well-intentioned,” but could have “serious negative consequences for our democracy.”

Votes for change

Helen Van Etten, a former Republican National Committeewoman from Kansas, said modest turnout at the 2016 GOP presidential caucus in Kansas suggested an overhaul was in order.

In March 2016, 78,000 GOP voters participated in the caucus won by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. Trump, the eventual national nominee, finishing a distant second in Kansas. That level of participation was far below the 276,000 people voting in the subsequent Kansas Republican primary in August 2016. The Kansas GOP caucus was punted in 2020 due to President Trump’s popularity as a candidate for re-election.

“The voters of Kansas deserve the opportunity to fully engage in the process of selecting the next president of the United States,” Van Etten said. “This legislation supports democracy and gives more Kansans a voice.”

The Kansas Democratic presidential caucus in 2016 was won by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who beat eventual Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In 2020, Kansas Democrats conducted a presidential election exclusively by mail. Biden, who went on to defeat Trump, won that Kansas primary with Sanders finishing second.

Lawrence Sen. Marci Francisco, a Democrat who voting for the Senate bill, said the political appetite for a presidential primary election amounted to a declaration of confidence in the ability of county election officers and the secretary of state to operate accurate elections in Kansas.

“This is saying we have trust in our election officers and that they can run a fair and impartial election,” Francisco said.

David Soffer, who held jobs in the administrations of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly and former GOP Govs. Jeff Colyer and Sam Brownback, said a presidential primary on a weekday would be preferred to the state’s presidential caucuses often held on Saturdays in conflict with practices of Sabbath-observant people of the Jewish faith.

“The Sabbath is a day where Jews do not do any activity that would be considered work,” he said. “This would include anything from using a pen, to driving a car, to using a phone. Voting, unfortunately, would be considered one of those activities.”

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