Kansas close to limiting pre-primary party changes

Kansas state Sen. Jake LaTurner, left, a Pittsburg Republican, talks to state GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold, center, and Heath Kohl, right, the state GOP's political director, during the Senate's debate on a bill making it harder for voters to switch parties before primary elections, Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. (AP Photo/John Hanna)

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas legislators gave final approval Wednesday to a state Republican Party proposal to make it harder for voters to switch parties before primary elections, a move designed to block organized efforts by Democrats or their allies to either help pick weak GOP nominees or to defeat conservative candidates.

The Senate passed a bill containing the GOP plan, 27-12, reflecting conservative Republicans’ supermajority in the chamber. The measure heads to conservative Republican Gov. Sam Brownback because the House approved the measure last year. Brownback has not said publicly whether he’ll sign the bill.

The measure would prohibit voters who are registered with one political party from switching their affiliations between the June 1 candidate-filing deadline and when August primary results are certified. Current law says voters registered with a party can switch to another party up until two weeks before the primary. The law allows unaffiliated voters to choose a party at the polls, and the bill wouldn’t change that.

The bill comes after contentious Republican primaries for state Senate seats in 2012, which saw conservatives oust most — but not all — of the moderate GOP incumbents they targeted. In at least two districts, the Kansas National Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, encouraged members to register as Republicans to support moderate GOP incumbents.

Some Republican senators also said allowing party switching close to a primary would permit Democrats and their allies to swell the vote totals for the weakest GOP candidate, possibly giving a Democratic nominee a better chance in the November general election. Whatever strategy party-switchers pursue, it damages the integrity of the primary system, they said.

“If this is done in even one election, that is one election too many,” said Sen. Julia Lynn, a conservative Olathe Republican. “Stealing elections and manipulating elections is not what the democratic process is all about.”

The bill not only has the support of the state Republican Party’s leaders but also Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a GOP conservative, who said it would hinder “tactical or mischievous” party switching.

Both Democrats and Republicans now have closed primaries, so that only voters affiliated with them can vote in their contests. Thus, a Democrat who wants to influence a GOP race must become a Republican at least temporarily.

Lynn declined to give examples of stolen elections when pressed by Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. Hensley and other Democrats said the bill simply limits voters’ right to participate in elections.

All eight Democrats in the Senate voted against the measure, and they were joined by the chamber’s four remaining moderate Republicans — Jeff Longbine of Emporia, Carolyn McGinn of Sedgwick, Vicki Schmidt of Topeka and Kay Wolf of Prairie Village.

Hensley said conservative Republicans, having triumphed in past elections, are now trying to lessen the chances that they’ll be unseated. Hensley also noted that in some parts of GOP-leaning Kansas, the only candidates for some offices are Republicans.

“I do believe this disenfranchises Kansas voters,” Hensley said.

But state GOP Chairman Kelly Arnold said each party’s members alone should decide which candidate best represents their views.

“There should be no meddling in each other’s elections,” he said as he watched part of the debate from the Senate floor.

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