The voting forecast seems dismal.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach predicted Thursday that 18 percent of Kansas registered voters will cast ballots in Tuesday’s primary election. That’s a shade above the 15 percent predicted earlier this week for Sedgwick County by county Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman.
Those numbers would give the state its lowest primary turnout since 2006. The county would have to go back only four years to match 15 percent.
“We just don’t have any races that are raising the interest of the public,” Lehman said.
No statewide races of any kind. And certainly nothing like the hotly contested Republican primary between Todd Tiahrt and Jerry Moran for U.S. Senate in 2010, which drove the state and Sedgwick County turnout to 25 percent.
Locally, Tuesday’s Republican primary does offer voters a chance to elect a new district attorney for the first time in more than two decades and a high-profile GOP primary for sheriff. And the Republican primary will also decide five district judge positions, a polarized county commission race and some significant state Senate contests that could affect how supportive the Legislature is of Gov. Sam Brownback’s proposals.
But that’s just the point. Republican this, Republican that. Not much reason for non-Republicans to show up Tuesday, say political observers.
Registered Republicans make up 41 percent of the 265,384 registered voters in Sedgwick County and 44 percent of the 1.7 million registered voters statewide. That leaves the independents and Democrats combining for nearly 60 percent of the registered voters in the county and 55 percent in Kansas.
“The way we should be looking at the turnout is how many of the total registered Republicans voted,” said Joe Aistrup, a Kansas State University political science professor. “It’s the only party with any major races, and the Democrats don’t have that many contested races.”
Voters wanting to fill out every slot in Tuesday’s Democrat primary ballot in Sedgwick County could get writer’s cramp. They would have to write in a candidate’s name for 22 to 27 positions – depending on precinct – because that’s how many spots have no candidate, Lehman said.
That’s well over half the ballot.
The numbers do look different when considering only GOP voters.
In the 2010 primary, 48 percent of the registered Republicans cast ballots – almost double the overall turnout. And even in the dismal 15-percent primary turnout of 2008, the county had a 23 percent response from Republicans.
Republicans should want to vote in this election because they will decide the ultimate outcome in up to 11 races in Sedgwick County, depending on their district, because there aren’t any Democrat candidates.
Lehman’s 15 percent prediction may be a tad optimistic based on what she’s seen so far from advance voting. A week before the election, she had received only 2,800 mail-in ballots. At the same point before the 2008 primary, when the voter turnout for the county was 15 percent, the office had received 4,000 mail-in ballots. More than 11,000 mail-in ballots were in the office a week before the 2010 primary, which saw a 25 percent turnout.
Perhaps Lehman is counting on such determined voters as Wichita Democrat Rochelle Wilson. She plans to vote and she’ll do it as a Democrat.
“I feel like it’s a civic responsibility,” she said. “I do it knowing full well my vote isn’t worth a whole lot in this area. A lot of people feel like that and are discouraged.”
Or they are Democrats who beat last month’s deadline and re-registered as a Republican. That’s what her husband, Don Williamson, did.
A college humanities instructor, Williamson switched parties largely because he’s in state Senate District 25.
That’s where conservative Michael O’Donnell is trying to take out incumbent Jean Schodorf, who calls herself a traditional Republican. It’s one of the Senate races targeted by political action committees supportive of Brownback.
“That’s the one that swung the deal,” he said. “I switched parties so I could vote against (O’Donnell).”
But in general, Aistrup noted, Democrats and independents will keep primary voting numbers in Kansas low.
Being critical of those voters for not voting is unfair because they don’t have a stake in the outcome of a primary, he said.
“You could argue that Democrats and independents should be voting in the Republican primary because that’s the only real contest there is,” Aistrup added. “But that would be insisting they become Republicans, and that’s something they may not want to do.”
Independents can show up at the polls and sign up to be Republican, but Aistrup said independents traditionally don’t show up to vote in a primary. That’s significant because 30 percent (508,518) statewide and 33 percent (87,639) in Sedgwick County are registered as unaffiliated.
“It used to be that the unaffiliated were really partisan ties one way or another but they just wanted to be known as independent,” Aistrup said.
But that has shifted over the last 20 years: The unaffiliated have become truly independent as the two parties have become more polarized, he added.
Derby resident Mike Everhart, a registered Republican, describes himself as voting mostly independent and as moderately conservative.
“I try to avoid the extreme positions of all parties,” said Everhart, who plans to vote in the primary. “Typically, I vote Republican. But some of these tea party and right-leaning groups are turning me off. But I can’t see myself as a full-fledged Democrat either. The whole process is becoming more frustrating, but I am going to vote.”
Aistrup expects the biggest turnout of voters to come from those who are most conservative.
“They’re more driven by their purpose,” he said. “They tend to have the most passion. Those individuals with the strongest ideological perspectives tend to show up at the polls more.”
That’s why candidates are quick to point out any endorsements they get from conservative groups.
“That’s a brute fact for somebody in Kansas in 2012,” said Russell Fox, an associate professor of political science at Friends University. “We’re all about these ideological messages.”