An 18 percent statewide turnout in Tuesday's primary election should be of serious concern to Kansas residents and officials.
Tuesday's election featured some interesting and important contests, especially in the Republican Party. Moderate incumbents prevailed in races for secretary of state and insurance commissioner, and nominees for governor and Congress were chosen. The outcome of primary contests for five seats on the Kansas State Board of Education altered the political philosophy of that body and is expected to have a significant impact on the state's education future. These are matters that affect the lives of every Kansan.
What can the state do to increase participation in these important elections?
There may be a number of answers, but one that deserves serious consideration is moving the primary election to a later date. The first Tuesday in August was set as the primary election date by Kansas statute in 1908. It's time to re-examine whether that date still makes sense.
Tuesday's hot weather was one of the reasons for this year's low primary turnout. The odds of scalding weather in any Kansas August are pretty high. August also is a time when many families are traveling or busy with summer activities. With many organized activities lasting through July, and school starting by mid-August, early August becomes a prime time for vacations.
How about moving the primary to the Tuesday after Labor Day in September? School is back in session. Families and university students are settled in for the semester. Candidates could use the Labor Day weekend as a final opportunity to campaign.
There still would be two months for primary winners to campaign before the general election in November, a period that most voters would think is ample, perhaps preferable to the longer campaign season.
The shorter campaign season might even make the campaigns less expensive and encourage more candidates to run. It's only fair to note that in the early 1990s, when Kansas primaries were drawing a voter turnout closer to 40 percent (41 percent in 1990, 43 percent in 1992, 36 percent in 1994 and 39 percent in 1996), almost every legislative race, including those with an incumbent, was being contested at the polls. That certainly isn't the case now, with no area legislative races on the primary ballot and only one Lawrence legislator facing a major-party opponent in the general election.
Maybe early August was a good time for a primary election in 1908, but that doesn't mean it's the best time now. Kansas needs to look at ways to boost voter turnout for primary races, and moving the primary date to a later date is worth considering.