“Politics ain’t beanbag,” wrote that eminent political philosopher and New York state senator, George Washington Plunkitt, who wryly observed politics from his perch in the Democrats’ Tammany Hall near the turn of the 20th Century. His tart statement was true then, and it’s true now.
Writing a hundred years after Plunkitt’s 1905 memoir, political scientist John Aldrich asked a simple question in his book, “Why Parties?” It’s an elegant volume, mixing theory and history, but in the end Aldrich arrives at an answer that Plunkitt would have understood in a second. Aldrich concludes that parties are creations of ambitious politicians, who want predictability and control in the inherently unpredictable world of politics. Thus, the wisdom of both the scholar and the pol can help us understand a host of recent power plays in Kansas’s electoral politics.
Since 2012, in the pursuit of alleged reform or simplicity or fairness, Kansas Republicans have enacted or proposed a raft of bills that have or would change the way we conduct our elections.
To be sure, subject to court challenges, these various pieces of legislation are perfectly legal, but their sum effect will provide further advantages to the right wing of the majority party in this oh-so-red state.
We’re all familiar with Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s campaign to free Kansas from (non-existent) voting fraud, to the point of restricting registration and voting access through the requirements for photo identification at the polls and proof of citizenship at the time of registration. As of a recent federal court decision, many Kansans will be prevented from voting in 2014 and still more may be discouraged from casting a ballot.
Just this week Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill that would increase the deadline for switching party registration from two weeks before the August primary election to June 1. At least in this case Republican state legislators were reacting to an actual problem. Well, a problem from the perspective of right-wing Republicans, in that state Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Shawnee, beat back a conservative challenge in 2012 with the help of a few hundred votes from Democrats who switched parties. God forbid Kansans be free to choose whom they want to represent them, especially when the primary winner is a prohibitive favorite in the general election.
The beat goes on. Republican legislators have proposed moving local elections for city and county commissions and school boards away from their traditional spring dates and folding them into the fall federal election schedule. This would save money and increase turnout, the proponents argue. That’s true on the surface, but there are many good reasons for separating local elections and their particular issues from national contests.
Initially, the proposal called for making these non-partisan elections into partisan ones, with party labels serving as “guides” to voters. Such a transparent partisan power grab was rejected, but the proposal to change the dates remains alive. This means that the electorate would be far more partisan than in stand-alone spring elections, which is exactly the point.
Finally, in an arcane bit of party-based finagling, the Kansas Senate likely will enact a bill that will require a Senate leadership Political Action Committee, organized by moderate GOP senators, to disband. This is pure strong-arm politics, carried out by the right-wing GOP majority.
As a political scientist, I’m not at all surprised by such actions, large and small, which systematically seek partisan advantage. But let’s be clear. These are completely partisan maneuvers, designed to reduce the power of the overall Kansas electorate and, with the registration/voting restrictions, shape the nature of our voting population for years to come. Moreover, none of them addresses a serious problem.
George Washington Plunkitt would be proud. In his machine-politics era, the only reason for a party to exist was to sustain itself. And that is just what the governing right-wing faction of the Republican Party is doing in 21st Century Kansas.
Burdett Loomis is a political science professor at the University of Kansas and a member of the Insight Kansas writers’ group.