Politics & Government

Plan to boost voter turnout in Kansas didn’t turn out as planned

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A law aimed at increasing voter turnout by moving local elections from the spring to the fall got its first real test in Tuesday’s election for Wichita mayor — and results were mixed at best.

In the 2015 mayoral primary, the last spring election, turnout was a fairly dismal 9.8 percent. This time around, it was only slightly better when a flurry of late-arriving mail ballots inched it up to an even 10 percent.

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said things had seemed to be going better and she was surprised when the turnout ended up being almost exactly the same as four years ago.

More than 3,300 people cast early ballots this year, compared with less than 1,300 last time around.

“So we kind of thought that might indicate that it was going to pick up,” Lehman said. “But then it just didn’t. I guess those were people that were going to vote anyway and they voted early.”

Sen. Dan Kerschen, R-Garden Plain, was one of two Senate Republican to vote against changing election days.

“The first run doesn’t look too good,” he said. “This was a good sample, a good election with a lot of good people in it. To not have the turnout, unfortunately, it’s the same old thing.”

“Pathetic,” is the word former state Rep. Mark Kahrs used to sum up the turnout.

He was chairman of the House Elections Committee and said the Legislature didn’t go far enough when it moved the city and school board elections in 2015.

The bill he introduced would have consolidated the municipal elections with the state and national elections held in even-numbered years.

“I couldn’t get leadership in the Senate to support that,” said Kahrs, who now serves as Republican national committeeman for Kansas. “As you often do, we had to compromise, so the best we could do was to move it to the fall, but it was on odd years.

“As this last election shows, just changing it on the time of the year doesn’t make a big difference if we don’t combine it with the other elections.”

He pointed out that the two winners to emerge from the primary and move on to the Nov. 5 general election — incumbent Mayor Jeff Longwell and state Rep. Brandon Whipple — each got the votes of about 3 percent of the eligible electorate.

Lehman said her office has gotten complaints about moving the elections

“I keep having people say, ‘Oh, you changed the law,’ and I’m like, ‘I had nothing to do with this law being changed,’” she said. “This was not me, this was the Legislature.”

When the Legislature made the change, it also lengthened the election period, which Lehman said was a good move.

State and federal laws require her office to send out military and overseas mail ballots 45 days before an election. And there weren’t enough days on the calendar to do that with the old spring schedule, she said.

“Now we’re fine,” she said. “We’ve got plenty of time between elections to do all of that.”

But she’s opposed to putting all the elections on one ballot because she fears it would be more difficult for voters.

“Next year we’ll have between 44 and 47 offices on the ballot,” she said. “If you added all of these offices onto that ballot it would be even longer and it would take people longer to cast their ballot, so we had some concerns about that.”

Wichita was one of a host of cities and school districts in Kansas that opposed moving nonpartisan local elections to even-numbered years.

“We felt that we should have separation between local elections and state elections,” Longwell said.

He said that it’s too early to judge the new election calendar after only one real citywide race — and what’s on the ballot matters more than when the election’s held.

This year, only two races in Sedgwick County drew at least four candidates, the minimum to trigger a primary — the race for mayor and a race for an at-large seat on the Wichita school board.

Still, he said: “You had nine mayoral candidates out there, many of them spending tens of thousands of dollars.”

Whipple said while the turnout numbers didn’t change much, he perceived a shift in who voted.

“A lot of what we did was social media driven,” he said. “We had people who would tag us and take a picture with their voting sticker and that would ripple through to their network.

“So I’m interested to see once the numbers all come in, did younger people, people more likely to be on social media, did they come out in a higher percentage than past elections?”

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center and another alumnus of the 2015 House Elections Committee, said his support for moving elections goes all the way back to his first frustrating race for school board in 1993.

That experience, he said taught him about the apathy and confusion that went with spring elections, when people aren’t thinking about voting.

“I had friends say ‘Hey, Steve, good luck on that school board thing you’re trying to win,’” he said. “I said ‘Yea, the election was last week. I was counting on your vote. I lost by seven votes.’”

Like Kahrs, he supports combining all elections on a single ballot

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John Whitmer, a former Republican representative who served on the Elections Committee, said he thinks the Legislature did the right thing moving the elections, even if it didn’t jump start turnout like they thought it would.

“This campaign cycle was longer, you had multiple forums, you had a lot more time for the voters to get to know the candidates, so in that respect, this was a better campaign season,” he said. “If you think back to when they were in the spring, you had Christmas and bad weather and there was no time really for people to even get to know the candidates.

“At least here, the people who did vote got a chance to know everybody, so in that regard I would still say it was a success to move them.”

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.
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