Kennedy School and Langston Hughes School are in the same city, but when it comes to voting, they are worlds apart.
At Kennedy — on the far east side of Lawrence — 7.5 percent of eligible voters surrounding the school turned out to vote in Tuesday’s city and school district races.
At Langston Hughes — on the far west side of Lawrence — 21.9 percent of voters came to the polls.
And in this case, you can’t lean on the old crutch of college students don’t come out to vote in local elections.
“There are not a lot of college students out in those neighborhoods,” said Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, who lives in the area surrounding Kennedy.
Instead, Tuesday’s elections lent more evidence to a theory that the west side has become more politically active than the east side — at least when it comes to local politics.
The Journal-World analyzed voter turnout numbers for every precinct in the city based on whether they were located east or west of Iowa Street. Here’s what the numbers show:
• The average voter turnout east of Iowa Street was 11.9 percent. West of Iowa it was 18.7 percent.
• A total of 3,810 people east of Iowa voted in the election. West of Iowa, 5,564 people voted.
• The lower voter totals east of Iowa occurred despite the fact that there are more than 3,000 additional registered voters in eastern Lawrence than there are in western Lawrence.
Shew said he didn’t have a good explanation for the discrepancy. But both he and the president of the local League of Women Voters said they would like to have a community discussion, or perhaps a panel, to explore how voter turnout can be increased in all parts of the city.
“There is a whole slew of generalizations that we could make, but what I think the league could do is work with the city and county to come up with some solid reasons about why this is happening,” said Carrie Lindsey, president of the League of Women Voters of Lawrence and Douglas County. “Because the truth of it is, overall voter turnout is appalling.”
Voter turnout for the entire city was 13.9 percent.
The east versus west discrepancy in turnout was evident in the 2007 city and school board elections, too.
“I’m not a political scientist, but it may be that the west side has seen most of the growth lately,” Lindsey said. “They may understand better what is at stake because a lot of these issues have been in their backyards.”
Tuesday’s elections, though, produced an even lower overall turnout than the 2007 elections, which checked in with about a 19 percent turnout.
This year’s elections were the first under a new state law that increased the number of people needed to trigger a primary. As a result, for the first time in recent memory, neither the City Commission nor school board race included a primary.
“I think there is an argument to be made that not having a primary caused this election to get out of the gates really slowly,” Shew said.
The City Commission has the ability to exempt itself from the new state law, which would require 11 people to run for office before a primary is needed. The old system triggered a primary anytime seven or more people ran for office.
Mike Amyx — the top vote-winner in the City Commission race — said he wants the city to consider going back to the old system, although a primary does cost local governments about $40,000.
“This election was a little bit slower,” Amyx said. “A lot of people concentrated their efforts in the last month. Yard signs went out later.”
Lindsey, though, said it likely will take more than changing the primary rules to get voter turnout to a level the community wants.
“I think it will take efforts to increase the sense of civic responsibility people feel, but also it will take efforts to increase the sense of trust they have in government,” Lindsey said. “You have to make people understand that government is not a bad thing. If you think government is bad, who is going to go out and vote for a bad thing?”