If you wonder why voter turnout is so low in many local elections, Michael A. Smith, an associate professor of political science at Emporia State University, suggests you talk to some local politicians.
“A classic story I hear from people in government is that constituents are totally confused about what various levels of government do,” Smith said.
Smith tells the story about how one Kansas state lawmaker during the Bill Clinton presidency got a telephone call from a constituent urging him to not vote for the impeachment of Clinton. The lawmaker didn’t have the strength to explain that such matters weren’t decided in Topeka.
“He just said, ‘I’ll vote against that the first chance that I get,’” Smith said.
“Most voters are not political science professors,” Smith said. “Most of them don’t keep track of what the city commissions or the county commissions do. Most of them just don’t get into that.”
If Tuesday’s city and school board elections were any indication, there are plenty of voters in Lawrence who aren’t into such matters.
Despite the Lawrence City Commission race being one of the more contentious races in recent memory — think Rock Chalk Park, police headquarters, campaign finance debates, and the police officers association coming out against the front-runner — voter turnout in Lawrence reached just 18 percent.
It was even worse in the smaller communities of Baldwin City, Lecompton and Eudora, where there was even a sales tax increase on the ballot. All three of those communities had turnout of less than 14 percent. Countywide, voter turnout was just 16 percent.
The voter rolls show that in Lawrence there are 60,210 registered voters. Only 10,859 of them cast ballots in the city and school board elections. That produces a type of democracy where candidates don’t exactly have to appeal to the masses to be successful.
Take, for example, the top three finishers who won seats Tuesday on the Lawrence City Commission. Leslie Soden was the runaway winner of the election with 6,131 votes. She won a solid majority — 56 percent — of all the votes cast, which isn’t always the case in a field that has six candidates. But when you look at Lawrence’s total registered voters, she won support from just 10 percent of all the registered voters in Lawrence. The other two winners of the election both received support of about 9 percent.
The largest mandate from Tuesday’s election may be that there are apparently plenty of other things to do on the first Tuesday of April.
“Americans are very focused on presidential elections,” Smith said. “I think we like being able to just vote for a person rather than being involved in a process. With these local elections, really there are a lot of voters not even aware they are happening.”
And that is not just in Lawrence. Voter turnout here actually was better than in several large Kansas counties. Johnson County — home to one of the larger conglomerations of highly educated, high-income residents in the state — must have been focused on an SUV convention or some other such task on Tuesday. Voter turnout in Johnson County was just 9.8 percent. Ponder this for a moment: Olathe, a town that has almost 40,000 more people than Lawrence, had 6,200 people vote in its mayoral election. Lawrence had about 10,000 people vote in its City Commission elections.
Voter turnout in Sedgwick County, where Wichita was voting on a groundbreaking marijuana ordinance, had a turnout of only 16 percent. Turnout in other large counties in the state included: Shawnee, 12 percent; Saline, 18 percent; Riley, 16 percent; and Wyandotte, 15 percent.
Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, who is responsible for overseeing elections in the county, said voter turnout is fairly strong in some areas of Lawrence. But he said there are also many other areas that consistently have low voter turnout. Many of those are neighborhoods dominated by student housing. Shew said university communities across the country struggle with getting students to vote in local elections.
Some residents struggle with whether they want university students to vote in local elections, since they often don’t have long-term plans to stay in the community. Shew urges university students to vote in Lawrence.
“When I’m talking to students I remind them that local officials will decide issues like noise ordinances, whether you can have a couch on your front porch and lots of other things that impact your life,” Shew said.
But student voters largely stay home nonetheless. Predictably, the lowest voter turnout in Lawrence was in Precinct No. 10, which largely is the Daisy Hill student dormitory area. Out of 1,022 registered voters in the precinct, only two came to vote in the April election. Other low turnout areas included:
• Precinct No. 7, at 6.1 percent. The area largely encompasses the neighborhood just north and east of Memorial Stadium.
• Precinct No. 8, at 6.8 percent. The area includes the football stadium and the houses to the north and west of the stadium.
• Precinct No 25, at 5.5 percent. It includes much of the area that is considered the Oread neighborhood and many of the scholarship halls and greek houses.
There are some areas of town that aren’t student hotbeds that also suffer from low voter turnout. For example, Precinct No. 4, just west of Lawrence Memorial Hospital, includes several lower income housing areas. It had a turnout of 11 percent.
Shew said he does see where voter turnout suffers in some neighborhoods that have large numbers of working class, low-to-moderate income households.
“You have places where people are working two or three jobs to raise a family, and the last thing on their mind is getting to the polling place to vote,” Shew said. “We have created a system that is based on whether you have the luxury of time to go somewhere to vote. If you do, then you vote. I think that is one of the reasons why we see a higher percentage of retired people who vote.”
Shew said he thinks elections conducted by mail would help with turnout. The county in January conducted its first mail ballot election for a relatively arcane school financing issue for Lawrence public schools. Voter turnout was 34 percent. Shew has said he thinks Tuesday’s local election would have had a turnout of about 40 percent if it had been conducted by mail.
But currently state law prohibits elections of people by mail ballot. Sales tax elections and other noncandidate-based elections can be conducted by mail ballots. The state Legislature actually mandated that the school finance question in January be conducted by mail ballot.
Shew, though, said he doesn’t think mail ballots are going to become the norm for city and school board elections anytime soon, let along statewide races. He said lawmakers are concerned that mail ballots are too susceptible to fraud.
Smith said there hasn’t been evidence of such fraud in Oregon and Colorado, two states that have broadly embraced the idea of mail ballots.
But the entire fraud issue brings up an interesting question: If Kansas lawmakers are worried that mail ballots open the door to fraud, why are they allowing — even mandating in some cases — their use in any type of election?
“I’m still waiting for an answer on that question,” said Shew, who said he’s raised the issue with lawmakers.
Shew said there are probably other options that could be pursed to increase voter turnout. Elections on a Saturday may help, for example. But he said most will take state law changes. He said those changes have happened in other states, but usually such change hasn’t been pushed for by elected officials.
“A lot of it was driven by voters saying we want something different,” Shew said. “If there is going to be a change in Kansas, I think it will happen when voters say we want this.”