Politics & Government

Saving money or stacking the deck? Kentucky weighs getting rid of separate election for governor, top officials

Since 1895, Kentucky has elected its constitutional officers in odd number years. The legislature is hoping voters will change that in 2018.

Legislators have proposed two bills, SB 4 and HB 23, that would change the constitution so Kentuckians would vote on the constitutional offices, like governor and attorney general, in presidential election years instead of off-years. Constitutional amendments require approval from the voters.

As it stands now, Kentucky has three statewide elections each four year-cycle. Two of those elections follow the national cycle of congressional and presidential races in even years. Tucked between those is the statewide race for state government leaders.

The proposed changes would start taking effect in 2024, meaning if Gov. Matt Bevin were to win a second term in 2019 his second term would last five years.

Proponents of the bill say having two elections every four years will save the state money while increasing voter turnout for statewide elections. Opponents say it’s a Republican attempt to hold onto power by nationalizing the race for the most important office in the state.

“I think people are beginning to understand how tight money is,” said Rep. Kenny Imes, R-Murray, the sponsor of the House bill. “And for me, that’s the primary reason for sponsoring it.”

The phrasing of the ballot measure emphasizes the cost-savings element of the bill.

On their ballot, voters will see the question: “Are you in favor of holding the election of all statewide Constitutional officers in even-numbered years beginning in 2024 to save substantial state and local funds?”

There are certainly cost savings associated with the bill, a financial analysis by the Legislative Research Commission found it could save each precinct in the state about $4,000, but there’s also a strong political element.

“In a state leaning Republican like this, having elections in the off year helps the minority party,” said Stephen Voss, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky has only supported Republican candidates for president since the Bill Clinton election in 1996. The state hasn’t had a Democratic U.S. senator since Wendell Ford retired in 1998.

Despite being a solid Republican state on a federal level, Kentucky elected two Democrats to constitutional office as recently as 2015: Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes and Attorney General Andy Beshear.

Kentucky is one of five states that elects its governor in the off year. The others are Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey and Virginia.

“Having the state election in an off-year gives the statewide candidates the attention and resources to distinguish themselves,” Voss said.

Democrats fear that the bill will serve as a way for Republicans to use their national popularity to boost their popularity in the state, thereby making it more difficult for Democrats to win office.

“What this is really about is putting Kentucky in the presidential election cycle in the hopes of the GOP maintaining an advantage,” Senate Minority Leader Ray Jones, D-Pikeville, said in a floor speech against SB 4.

Both parties try to tie local candidates to unpopular national agendas. In his speech announcing his re-election bid, U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, said his Democratic opponents all support the positions of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California. His Democratic opponents have all tried to tie Barr to Trump.

The effect becomes more pronounced during a presidential campaign when all the attention is focused on the race at the top of the ticket. Most recently, the Republicans rode the wave of President Donald Trump to take the House of Representatives with a super majority.

Voss says a popular presidential candidate will help a local race for two primary reasons: voter turnout and straight-ticket voting.

Voters typically turn out in much higher numbers during presidential years. In 2015, only 30.6 of Kentucky voters turned out to elect Gov. Matt Bevin to office. The next year, 59.1 percent of Kentucky voters turned out to elect President Donald Trump.

That higher turnout, especially with a popular presidential candidate like Trump in Kentucky, usually results in more people voting for a specific party.

State Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, said he feared having the two races in one year would cause voters to attribute national issues to the state race.

“I don’t think we should confuse who’s running for president, or who’s gonna control the U.S. Senate, or who’s going to control the U.S. House of Representatives, with who’s going to be our governor,” Thomas said.

State Sen. Wil Schroder, R-Wilder, suggested that voters would be able to distinguish between national elections and state elections, pointing out that state House and Senate races are the same year as federal races.

“Our voters are sophisticated enough to research the candidates, research the issues and realize what pertains to the federal level and what pertains to the state level and sort that out for themselves.”

Switching an election to even years is not unprecedented. County elected officials went from elections on odd numbered years to even numbered years in 1998. The Kentucky Association of Counties sees the bill as a way to help cut costs in a time with rising jail and pension costs.

“Any savings we get out of this, we could use it in any number of places,” said Christie Dutton, the director of public affairs for KACo.

The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, passed Thursday along party lines. The House’s companion bill, sponsored by Rep. Kenny Imes, R-Murray, has been passed through committee but still hasn’t received a vote in the House.

Kentucky passed its last significant constitutional amendment in 2004, when the state voted to ban same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court overturned that law in 2015.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics