Will Killeen move its municipal election to the fall?
That’s a hot topic right now, especially after the City Council voted last week to consider the shift at an upcoming meeting.
With a 5-1 vote in favor of moving forward with the discussion, it might seem like a moot point to note the disadvantages of an election date change. However, the consequences — for both voters and future candidates — are potentially too great to ignore.
Certainly, there are some advantages to such a move, including potentially higher voter turnout and lower costs when elections are conducted in conjunction with the county elections office.
Proponents of a date change can point to the Nov. 3 municipal election — which was moved from May because of concerns surrounding the spread of the coronavirus. In the Nov. 3 balloting, the Killeen municipal election drew more than 43,600 voters — more than half of the city’s 85,827 registered voters — compared to the last at-large election in May 2018, in which about 3,765 voters cast ballots, according to city figures.
The 2020 numbers may seem impressive, but keep in mind that the Nov. 3 election was held in conjunction with a high-profile presidential election, congressional races, several state races and a few hotly contested county races.
Who can say for sure whether the nearly 40,000 additional voters knowledgeably cast their ballots in the Killeen municipal races, or were just arbitrarily clicking boxes to finish out a lengthy election ballot?
On even-year elections, when voters choose candidates for county, state and national office, it can be argued that candidates for municipal office would get drowned out by the campaign rhetoric, advertising and yard signs from office-seekers higher up the ballot. No doubt, it likely would be hard to enunciate a defining platform or a proposed set of goals for the city when voters are being subjected to a simultaneous barrage of messages associated with county, state and national races.
Conversely, in odd-year elections — when no other races are on the ballot, except a possible state propositions referendum — municipal candidates would have the stage to themselves, but it’s hard to say whether voters would be paying any more attention than they do in a May election . This is especially among older voters, who may prefer to vote in May and opt not to participate in the fall.
If Killeen moved its election to the fall, city candidates who run in at-large race and mayoral races — which are held in even-numbered years — would have a crowded ballot to contend with in November, while candidates in district races, elected in odd-numbered years, likely would have a much easier time connecting with voters.
Another problem associated with moving city elections to November is the spectre of partisanship.
Municipal elections are designed to be nonpartisan, with candidates listed on the ballot by name only, and no party affiliation.
However, if the election is bunched in with partisan races for county, state and national office, it would be more likely that some candidates might link themselves to party-affiliated candidates from other races or to a specific political party, in an attempt to gain votes.
The potential for partisanship in city elections was on display last fall, when Ken Wilkerson — running as a Killeen City Council candidate — was featured on a flyer from the Bell County Democrats promoting Democratic candidates in a variety of area races. Wilkerson, who has been involved in local Democratic Party politics, said he didn’t ask to be on the flyer, Nonetheless, the message was clear: a major political party was endorsing the candidacy of a candidate in a nonpartisan race.
Another potential problem with moving the election involves the local school district.
Traditionally, Killeen has conducted its May elections jointly with the Killeen Independent School District, which has its board elections on the same day. Sharing in the elections’ cost benefits both entities.
The joint elections allowed voters to cast their ballots for city and school board races in the same polling location, no doubt aiding turnout for both entities.
However, if Killeen moves its elections to November, that would put pressure on the KISD board to do the same with the school district elections. If KISD opts to keep its elections in May, the district would bear the full cost of the election. In addition, voters who live in Killeen would have to go to the polls twice each year to cast ballots in city and school district elections.
Several local cities, including Copperas Cove and Nolanville, moved their municipal elections to November after passage of a state bill in 2011 authorizing city councils to make the change via council resolution, provided a specific date isn’t mandated by the city’s charter. In the case of Copperas Cove, the Cove school district followed suit, putting both elections in the fall.
However, the 2011 state legislation set a deadline of 2016 for entities to move their election dates to November. Since Killeen opted not to, it will require new legislation to do so. Senate Bill 131 is pending in the Texas Legislature, and it would allow cities to move their election dates, as long as their governing bodies achieve a two-thirds majority.
So if Killeen council members vote to make the change, they may be in a waiting game to see if the legislation passes both houses of the Legislature and is signed into law.
If Killeen and KISD both move their respective elections to November, the change would benefit some area voters. Nolanville already has a November election, and a KISD date change would allow the city’s voters to cast ballots in city and school board races at the same location, assuming the two entities agree to conduct their elections jointly.
Presently, Nolanville voters must go to the KISD administration building to cast a ballot in the May school board election — not a convenient process by any means.
However, the decision of whether to move Killeen’s election date should be based on more than just cost and convenience.
Ultimately, council members must decide what’s best for the city’s voters and prospective candidates for office — and what best serves the democratic process in our community.
Change can be good, and it is often necessary.
But before charting a new course — or moving a date on the calendar — it’s imperative that our elected leaders fully consider the potential consequences.
To do any less would do a disservice to themselves, to their constituents and to our community.