About the same number of people who showed up for three concerts at Intrust Bank Arena in August are expected to vote in the Wichita city and school board primary election.
A little more than 18,000 people — 9 percent of those eligible and registered to vote in this primary — are projected to cast ballots either in advance or at the polls Tuesday, said Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Bill Gale.
The Dave Matthews Band drew more than half that many for a concert Aug. 14. Throw in those attending the Celtic Women and Rush concerts in August and you have almost 18,000.
Thirty-one candidates are running in the primary for Wichita mayor, City Council and school board.
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Local issues don't seem to captivate the interest of voters as much as national ones, political analysts and local officials say.
And that's too bad, because local decisions can affect Wichitans more than what's decided in Topeka or Washington, they say.
"And then when we're unhappy with decisions that are made at policy level in our community, we like to vocalize," said Janet Miller, the City Council member for District 6, who is not up for re-election this year. "But the time to have done that was by pushing the button in the ballot box."
Instead, Wichita State University political science professor Ken Ciboski said, "There is an abysmal lack of interest."
Particularly when you consider that 75 percent of Sedgwick County's registered voters cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election and nearly 53 percent voted in last fall's general election.
Mayor's race a 'driver'
The "biggest driver" for turnout in Wichita's local primaries is how competitive the mayor's race is, Gale said.
Look at 2003. Twenty-nine percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the spring primary when the mayor's seat was open.
Nearly 46,500 people, a record for a mayoral primary, voted to separate a hotly contested field of 15 candidates. Three candidates — Joan Cole, Carlos Mayans and Bill Warren — combined to spend more than $200,000 on the primary.
Mayans and Warren advanced to the general election, which Mayans won.
The 2007 mayoral primary race wasn't nearly as contentious. Less than 13 percent of registered voters cast ballots to send Mayans and Carl Brewer out of a field of seven to the general election, which Brewer won.
Traditional measures indicate there's not much competition for Brewer as he seeks a second term this spring.
Besides an advantage in name recognition, he had more than $30,000 cash in his campaign fund last week. Four of the five challengers aren't spending more than $500, and the fifth had less than $1,000 cash on hand.
So this primary looks a lot like 2009, when less than 9 percent voted on a ballot that included only two council districts and a handful of other positions.
Besides the mayoral race, this primary's ballot will include City Council positions for Districts 2, 3 and 4 and the at-large spot on the Wichita school board.
The top two finishers in the city election and the top three for school board advance to the April 5 general election.
District 2 appears to be stirring the most interest. The five candidates pursuing the open seat had combined to spend more than $45,000, according to financial reports released last week.
Thursday, the first day of walk-in advance voting at multiple locations, two District 2 voting sites had three and four times the turnout seen anywhere else, Gale said.
"District 2 could be a driving force (for turnout)," he said.
Impact on ordinary life
If money talks, then folks should pay attention to local spring elections.
Between them, Wichita's City Council and school board oversee budgets totaling more than $1.2 billion.
The school board plans to cut as much as $30 million from its budget, negotiate a new teacher contract, redraw school boundaries and re-examine a $370 million bond issue. The council is considering a new trash plan, deals regularly with often controversial economic incentives for businesses and faces ongoing budget cuts.
"Local leaders are going to have the most immediate impact on the ordinary life of people who live in the city," said Russell Fox, an associate professor of political science at Friends University. "They close a bridge for repairs. They approve a tax bill that keeps a business afloat.
"This is real, ordinary life stuff."
So why do so few participate in city and school board elections?
Among the reasons: lack of connection voters feel for non-partisan elections like these, too many election cycles and a tendency among voters to pay more attention to national issues than local — at least until one affects them directly.
Voters tend to peg candidates by their political parties. When they don't hear Republican or Democrat, they aren't sure what to do, say political observers.
"In the fight over whether to close a road, the people who drive on it and people who have businesses along it care," Fox said. "But it's not going to plug into Republican-Democrat or conservative-liberal."
Most voters' interest follows what's reported in the news media, he said. "But that gets dominated by the big stories, by state stories and especially national and world stories."
But information on local issues and elections is there for those who make the effort to find it, he said.
As it is, Ciboski said, "The ignorance on (local issues) is rampant."
Miller said the fact that Wichita's elections are nonpartisan should encourage citizens to vote.
"You have the luxury of choosing among all the candidates," she said. "You're not limited to one set of candidates or the other. That's really kind of a nice feature."
Too many elections?
Another reason given for low turnout is too many elections.
"We just got over elections, and here we are with another one," Ciboski said. "We're not generally as charged up for elections as we should be because we're always in an election cycle."
Most states used to have their city and school board elections in the fall.
"But we'd have these really long ballots and long lines during presidential years," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center in Houston.
So most states now have city and school board elections in the spring.
Kansas' Legislature is considering a bill this session that would move those elections back to the fall, but it hasn't been able to make it out of committee hearings, said Brad Bryant, the Secretary of State's election director.
An underlying reason most citizens don't vote in local elections is that they are relatively content, analysts say.
"Some people have great fears about low turnout," Ciboski said, "because they think voters who don't vote are unhappy. No, probably not. They're very happy with the way things are."
Otherwise, they would be more likely to vote, Fox said.
"There's a criticism of people who don't vote for not taking responsibility for their own daily life," he said. "But it's also an acknowledgment that most people's daily life is OK.
"It's not a struggle for them. So arguments about schools and roads, they take it in their stride."