There are millions of reasons to vote in Tuesday’s general election for city and school board positions:• $513 million annual budget for city of Wichita.
• $628 million annual budget for Wichita public schools.
Almost all of Sedgwick County’s registered 272,000 voters have at least one item on their ballots. In addition to school board and council seats, some area communities also will be voting on mayors.
And yet Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman projected that less than 9 percent of the eligible voters will actually vote.
That falls in line with a downward spiral of turnout for local elections since 38 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the county’s 2005 spring elections. The turnout was 24 percent in 2008, 9 percent in 2009 and 13 percent in 2011.
There was a mayoral race in 2011 but not in 2009, which explains the interruption in the steady decline. There also isn’t a Wichita mayoral race this year.
“The numbers keep getting lower and lower,” Lehman said.
Less than 5 percent of the county’s eligible voters cast ballots in the February primary, although a snowstorm probably contributed some to the small turnout.
Of the 6,600 advance mail-in ballots the county sent out for the general election, only 2,500 had been returned by Friday, Lehman said.
“It’s terrible,” Russell Fox, a Friends University political science associate professor, said of the low turnouts. “When your voting levels are dropping that low, how can you plausibly claim there’s civic health in a community?
“You’re not a democracy anymore. The people are not governing.”
Decisions are made by local governing bodies that have significant impact on people’s lives, he said.
In the coming year, Wichita’s City Council will be dealing with such big-ticket items as how to come up with $2.1 billion over time to repair and replace the city’s sewer and water lines. A water shortage and crumbling bridges and streets also demand attention.
The City Council has four seats – Districts 1, 3, 4 and 6 – up for election. Council members serve a four-year term and are paid $35,000 a year. A person must live in the district to vote for a candidate.
Incumbent Lavonta Williams and Dave Thomas were the only ones to file in District 1, which includes parts of north and east Wichita, so there was no primary. In District 3, which includes much of south Wichita, incumbent James Clendenin won the three-person primary with 73 percent of the vote and faces Clinton Coen in the general election. Incumbent Janet Miller drew 79 percent of the primary vote for District 6 in west Wichita and is opposed by Marty Mork.
District 4, in southwest Wichita, is an open seat after Michael O’Donnell was elected last fall to the state Senate. Paul Gray has served the district in the interim, but he opted not to run in the election.
Joshua Blick and Jeff Blubaugh were the top two finishers in the primary and will meet in the general. Blick garnered 40 percent of the primary vote and Blubaugh 29 percent.
Wichita school board members set district policy and oversee a budget of $628 million for a district with about 50,000 students – the state’s largest. Members serve four-year terms and earn no salary.
Four seats on the school board – Districts 1, 2, 5 and 6 – are up for election. Though candidates must live in those particular districts, voters throughout the school district decide the races.
Incumbents Betty Arnold and Lynn Rogers are running unopposed for Districts 1 and 6.
Joy Eakins and Scott B. Poor are vying to represent District 2, which includes much of east Wichita. John Crane, Peter Grant and Mike Rodee are running in District 5, which covers western parts of the city.
The Wichita district faces several difficult issues. It is an urban district with a poverty level of more than 70 percent, measured by the number of children receiving free or reduced-price lunches. The number of Wichita students for whom English is not their first language has grown more than 80 percent in the past 10 years.
School leaders are debating how to proceed with a $370 million bond issue after the loss of state and federal money they had counted on to help finance construction projects and pay operating costs. Board members also will oversee school security initiatives and the district’s transition to Common Core Standards, an initiative designed to align states’ standards and measure of progress.
Lehman said she would like to be wrong about the turnout prediction of 9 percent.
“I hope everyone gets out and surprises us,” she said. “There are a lot of races, but they aren’t hotly contested.”
Blick and Blubaugh, the council’s District 4 candidates, said they plan to continue knocking on doors this weekend.
Blubaugh said he may taper off the efforts on Sunday because “a lot of people don’t want politicians knocking on their doors on Easter.”
Education about the issues and candidates is an important part of people being motivated to vote, said Fox, the Friends political science associate professor.
Most people aren’t news consumers, he said. But among those who are, he said, “More and more people are getting their news through these distant, primarily national, primarily ideological venues. They are getting it from blogs, news feeds, MSNBC or Fox News – but rarely both.
“They’re doing this to confirm what they already know.”
But that makes it difficult for voters to build a base of local knowledge of issues and candidates, he said.
Last Sunday, The Eagle’s 2013 Voter Guide was printed and it’s still available online at Kansas.com.
The only registered voters in Sedgwick County who don’t have a stake in the election are 1,100 voters from the county who live in the Circle school district. The school board seat in their area of the district is not on the ballot.
Contributing: Suzanne Perez Tobias of The Eagle