When Kansas voters went to the polls in August, it didn’t end up being one of the state’s prouder moments. So it’s vital that the Nov. 6 general election clearly demonstrates our ability to conduct voting well.
The August primary and its aftermath painfully put election deficiencies on display. Johnson County, for one, experienced long lines, problems with voting machines and a slow rollout of results. Unaffiliated voters found themselves casting votes that didn’t count. One state senator from Wichita told The Wichita Eagle that the primary election was her “worst voting experience ever.”
Elections are always subject to some degree of human error. But the shortcomings in the primary were magnified by the razor-thin margin separating the two Republican front-runners for governor, and the fact that the eventual nominee, Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is the state’s chief elections officer. In response to how things went, critics have called for changes in the state’s election structure and processes.
To be fair, these issues were hiccups. The county clerks, election officers and volunteers who do the lion’s share of work tend to get noticed only when things go wrong. They get few pats on the back for making the process run smoothly.
But the hubbub hints at one of the broader adaptive challenges facing Kansas at the moment – a growing lack of trust in the processes and institutions necessary to hold the fabric of the state together.
The years leading up to this fall’s general election have been rife with stories about disturbances at understaffed prisons, social service agency failures to protect children from harm, and delayed or deferred highway projects. Many of the breakdowns followed the tax cuts championed by former Gov. Sam Brownback that squeezed state finances before they were repealed by lawmakers last year. The deterioration in state government left some to wonder if it can function the way its residents need it to.
But diminishing levels of public trust existed long before the Brownback administration. For years, politically conservative Kansans have been losing faith in public education, higher education and the courts, which they see as working against their values or overriding popular will. Trust in the news media, an important nongovernmental institution, has splintered spectacularly along partisan lines, with Democrats largely trusting it and Republicans not. Whether we’re spending more or less, we don’t seem to be innovating government in ways that build trust.
For every candidate courting votes this fall, and every voter who steps into the voting booth or mails in a ballot, the erosion of trust in public institutions and processes is a daunting adaptive challenge that deserves attention.
I have few illusions that this election will heal levels of public trust. This is a moment where fractures along partisan lines seem particularly pitched, and the fall campaign is bound to sharpen Kansans’ political differences.
But as Kansans debate and vote, it’s also important to remember that the foundations of democracy are built on trust. There’s no way the state can hash out its most important political debates in any sustainable way unless there are sacred spaces where institutions can transcend political differences and there are processes in place to give everyone a fair shake.
Chris Green is the managing editor of The Journal, a quarterly magazine published by the Kansas Leadership Center. The Journal’s Fall issue spotlights the leadership challenges facing communities and government in areas that impact us daily. It will be available Oct. 4 at klcjournal.com and Wichita’s Watermarkbooks.com.