About 16 percent of registered voters in Sedgwick County cast votes in Tuesday’s local election – not a great number but not terrible, according to election officials and political experts.
“When you take a look at what you typically see for local elections, particularly springtime local elections, it’s pretty standard,” said Russell Fox, a professor of political science at Friends University.
“If you think spring elections are a problem, this didn’t change your mind,” he said. “And if you think spring elections aren’t a problem, this didn’t change your mind.”
Voter turnout was 12 percent in the last mayoral election in 2011, when Carl Brewer was elected to a second term. For last month’s primary, turnout was less than 10 percent.
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“So we are happy that it was higher,” said Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman. “Obviously, we would have loved to have seen it even higher than that, but we are glad that it was that high.”
The last time the mayor’s seat was open, in 2003, turnout was 32 percent. It was 24 percent in 2007, when Brewer defeated a sitting mayor to begin his first term.
Wichita voters chose a new mayor Tuesday as well as City Council and school board members. And they decided, by a small but decisive margin, in favor of a measure to lessen penalties for first-time possession of marijuana.
Fox said the result of the marijuana ballot issue may be even more telling than expected because overall turnout was so typical. There weren’t an overwhelming number of votes cast for that issue as opposed to other races, he said.
“It wasn’t some crazy blowout,” he said. “Precisely because it was a small but decisive win amongst ordinary voters – in some ways, that makes an even stronger argument in favor of it.”
Lehman said voting went smoothly Tuesday, with no major problems reported in any polling places. Voting was slow but steady at most locations.
Some voters said they make sure to vote in spring elections because local offices affect them more directly.
“Every election is important, but it’s the local elections where you really feel like you have the opportunity to make your voice matter,” said Emily Millspaugh, 32. “Also, it’s important to my husband and me that we start our daughter off with a strong sense of civic duty.”
At Christ the King Catholic Church, the flow of voters was steady, but only about 40 people had voted by the time the morning rush hour ended.
“I would have expected a little bit more,” said supervising judge Katie LaRue. “As much advertising as there’s been, I thought if anything it might galvanize a few more voters.”
Mary Wehrheim of Wichita voted at the Sedgwick County Zoo first thing Tuesday morning, before sunrise.
“When I got out of the car, I heard tigers roaring, which rather unnerved me,” she said. “They sounded like they were strolling through the parking lot looking for some lunch.”
State lawmakers have been considering a measure to move local spring elections to the fall, in part to increase voter turnout. Fox, the Friends University professor, said supporters and opponents of the measure likely will try to spin Tuesday’s 16 percent turnout in their favor.
“Somebody who wants to say you just don’t get sufficient turnout in the spring – well, you’re right,” Fox said.
“But people who say, ‘Hey, these are people who take it seriously, and they’re turning out to vote,’ that’s right, too. It’s not like the election being in the spring is an obstacle to voting,” he said.
“I don’t think that this (turnout) is going to be an issue one way or the other.”