Low voter turnout is the norm in this country, including in Kansas.
“The fact we have turnouts of around 20 percent and lower is a warning sign for democracies,” said Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University. “It’s a bad sign.”
Kansas is staring at another low-turnout election.
Officials project 22 percent of the state’s registered voters — even fewer in Sedgwick County — will have cast ballots by the time polls close at 7 p.m. on Tuesday’s Election Day.
There are some compelling races, but not many.
The 4th Congressional District, which includes Sedgwick County, has probably the state’s most spirited Republican race with incumbent Mike Pompeo squaring off against former congressman Todd Tiahrt.
Sedgwick County has eight contested primaries for state House seats.
Republicans living in two of the county’s districts can select a county commissioner.
State Sen. Carolyn McGinn is challenging incumbent Richard Ranzau in District 4, in the north-central part of the county. Derby Mayor Dion Avello and state Rep. Jim Howell are vying for the open seat in District 5, in the southeast part of the county.
A statewide U.S. Senate race features longtime incumbent Pat Roberts against Milton Wolf, a political newcomer and a tea party candidate, in the GOP primary.
Gov. Sam Brownback is seeking a second term and faces Wichita business owner Jennifer Winn in the primary. But his real competition probably won’t come until he meets Democrat Paul Davis in November.
This also is a midterm primary. That traditionally means the lowest of the turnouts.
The 2010 midterm primary – which saw a hot U.S. Senate race between Tiahrt and Jerry Moran – saw 22.5 percent turnout. The state’s highest primary turnout over the last 12 years was 30.6 percent in 2004.
That’s still far from acceptable, political analysts say.
“Our voter turnout at its best, in presidential elections, is still lagging behind the rest of the world,” Rackaway said.
The United States has seen presidential election turnouts in the 60 percent range. But the country – including in Sedgwick County – has dipped into the single digits for local elections.
Excluding those with mandatory voting – such as Italy and Australia where fines are handed out for not voting – the average turnouts in other countries are in the mid-60 percent to 80 percent range, Rackaway said.
Russell Fox, a political science professor at Friends University, said, “People vote because they are engaged and it’s a priority for them.”
Voters were motivated by political parties in the 1800s – especially after the Civil War, when turnouts of 70 to 85 percent were the norm.
“But political parties were part of their lives,” Fox said. “If you were an immigrant coming to the United States, a political party probably got you the job.
“But there was a dark side to it. If the mayor is voted out, you lose your job. There was corruption.”
Changes in the early 1900s loosened the party’s grip on people’s lives, Fox added.
“Most say that was a good thing,” he said. “But now the worker doesn’t care if the mayor isn’t re-elected. You’re probably not going to lose your job.”
Today’s election world finds advertising as the main means of motivating voters, Fox said.
It hasn’t worked very well.
“The simple fact is we have not hit upon a tool that is good at engaging people,” Fox said.
For this Kansas primary, not all who have tried to register to vote will be able to vote.
As of Wednesday, 18,260 applications were being held up because they didn’t include proof of U.S. citizenship, according to figures provided by the Secretary of State’s Office.
Since 2013, state law requires that anyone registering to vote in Kansas for the first time must provide a state-approved document – such as birth certificate or passport – for the application to be approved.
Of the 111,021 applications filed since Jan. 1, 83.5 percent — or 92,761 — have been approved.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who faces Republican primary opposition from Lawrence attorney Scott Morgan, said, “Anything over 80 percent completion is good. Eighty-five percent would be very good, 90 percent excellent.”
Betty Ladwig, who oversees voter registration for the League of Women Voters in the Wichita area, takes a different view.
She said the voter laws pushed through the Legislature by Kobach, including the requirement to show a photo ID at the polls, don’t do anything to encourage voter turnout.
“I think what the Legislature did was really repressive,” she said. “We’ve moved civil rights backward in this state. It’s made it harder for people to vote.”
A handful of the 18,260 people – 176 statewide, including 84 in Sedgwick County – whose registration applications to vote in Kansas haven’t been approved will still be able to vote for candidates seeking federal offices, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
That’s because those 176 have successfully completed the federal registration form, which only requires the applicants to swear they are a U.S. citizen.
`Not a typical primary’
In the 4th District congressional race, both campaigns will be busy through Election Day trying to get folks out to vote.
Campaign crews at the Pompeo and Tiahrt headquarters have worked the phones particularly hard over the last week.
Tiahrt put an emphasis on getting people to vote in advance during his U.S. Senate campaign in 2010. That effort resulted in a significant increase in advance voting in Sedgwick County, although Tiahrt still lost to Moran in the primary.
Those efforts cost money – extra mailings, follow-up phone calls – and that’s something Tiahrt is short of in this race. Through July 16, he had received a total of $104,000 in campaign contributions; Pompeo had picked up $2 million, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Politicians don’t always want a high voter turnout.
“Voter turnout is kind of a squirrelly thing in terms of making predictions,” Fox said. “You can easily have an incumbent who wants to depress voter turnout. Low voter turnout almost always helps the incumbent.”
In referring to the U.S. Senate race, Fox said, Roberts “most certainly” doesn’t want a high turnout.
“He’s the Republican senator,” Fox added. “He can count on that. That’s part of why he’s dismissive of Wolf. He knows that he’s got the people that will just show and vote for the incumbent Republican.
“He doesn’t want a whole lot of people besides them to show up because the more other people that do, the more likely it is they might include people he can’t count on.”
Low voter turnout generally means the status quo is OK; high turnout means usually means people want change, Fox said.
But that theory doesn’t work as well when applied to the Pompeo-Tiahrt race, where both candidates are considered conservatives. After serving 16 years as congressman from the 4th District, Tiahrt also brings the name recognition of an incumbent.
“It’s not a typical primary to find two people using the same pool of voters to get in office,” Fox said.
Rackaway said, “It’s a real pick ’em call.”
“There’s so much similarity in the support for both, similarity in the background of the two,” he added. “I don’t know if turnout is going to be a deciding factor in spelling victory or defeat for either guy.
“That said, a larger turnout is always a good thing for a democracy.”