Election Day: Will voter turnout be higher? Will sales taxes win? Will women make history on Lawrence City Commission?

photo by: Nick Krug

A visitor arrives at the Douglas County Courthouse, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, as local residents fill out advance ballots for Tuesday's sales tax, city commission and school board elections.

Let’s do an Election Day edition of Town Talk. No, that doesn’t mean you have to show me your photo ID before you can read the column. But, if you want to read the column in a small booth shielded from the view of others, I would understand.

Today, of course, is Election Day for school board and city commission races in Lawrence and Douglas County. I’ll try to update this column a few times today as new information emerges. But to get us started, here are some news and notes from the election scene.

This is the first time we’ve had the city commission and school board elections in November. Normally, the local elections are held in April. State lawmakers changed the law with the hope that it would increase voter turnout. Today will be the best test yet. There is reason to believe that voter turnout will be higher, but I’m not sure how much it has to do with the change in month.

Instead, Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew for the first time in a local election sent out a mailer letting residents know they could request an advance ballot that they could return via mail. Shew told us he received 5,500 requests for ballots, and as of Monday, almost 4,800 of them had been returned.

That’s a big number considering that only a little more than 12,000 people voted in total in the 2015 general election for school board and city commission races. Or, another way to look at, is that it only took 5,800 votes to get elected as a city commissioner in 2015.

We’ll see, but I’m thinking that voter turnout could be higher than in past city and school elections. If you are keeping track at home, 16.5 percent is the number to beat. That was the voter turnout in the 2015 elections that were held in April.

UPDATE 1 p.m.: If the hope was that moving the elections to November would produce crowds closer to what we see during presidential elections, that clearly hasn’t happened in Lawrence. I was out from about 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. I stopped by several polling places on both the east and west side of towns. Poll workers told me that crowds were steady, and certainly were better than the August primary. That primary election had only about a 10 percent turnout rate. But when I asked poll workers whether they thought turnout was much greater than past city and school elections we’ve held in April, most said it seemed pretty comparable. Of course, remembering April 2015 can be tricky for some of us. We”ll know more once we see actual numbers. But I didn’t see any sign of lines or the type of crowds you see when we’re voting for a president or even a governor. However, because of the advance voting issue I mentioned above, it is still possible turnout could be significantly better than past years.

• This election has a special twist to it. In addition to the school board and city commission seats, voters also will decide the fate of three sales tax questions — a 0.3 percent infrastructure sales tax, a 0.2 percent sales tax for transit operations, and a 0.05 percent sales tax for affordable housing. The infrastructure and transit operations sales taxes exist currently, but are scheduled to sunset in 2019, so city officials are seeking their renewal for another 10 years. The affordable housing tax doesn’t exist currently, but rather is proposed the take the place of a transit capital improvements tax that is also set to expire in 2019.

In my role, I don’t believe in making public predictions about the outcome of elections, so I won’t tell you whether I think the taxes will win or lose at the polls. But I do think it will be interesting to compare these returns to the returns from the 2008 elections when the three sales taxes were approved by voters.

The comparison may provide interesting commentary on the mood of voters as it relates to taxes. In 2008, voters didn’t hesitate to approve the three new taxes. They were on the same ballot as Barack Obama, who was seeking his first term as president. Both Obama and the taxes rolled to victory in Lawrence.

The political climate is a bit different today. For one, turnout almost certainly will be less for this election than when the taxes were on the ballot in 2008. For another, voters are being asked to approve these three taxes at the same time they are facing their largest property tax increase in years. The city, the county and the school district all have approved significant property tax increases. Then, there is the question of whether Lawrence residents have fallen out of love with sales taxes. The last time the city tried to get a sales tax approved — in 2014 for a police headquarters building — the tax was rejected by a 52 percent to 48 percent margin.

But, as I noted, the more interesting comparisons will be how the vote totals for the three sales taxes compare to the 2008 vote. Here are those totals:

• 0.3 percent infrastructure sales tax: 73 percent to 27 percent

• 0.2 percent transit operations tax: 70 percent to 30 percent

• 0.05 percent transit capital tax: 69 percent to 31 percent

Those are some really big numbers to live up to.

• I believe today’s city commission election has a chance to be historic, in one way. Depending on the results, women could end up occupying three of the five seats on the Lawrence City Commission. I’m not sure when the last time that has happened, if ever. I’m going to spend some time today researching that bit of history in an attempt to be more definitive. I’ve covered the City Commission for the last 25 years, and I don’t recall at time that there have been three women on the commission. (Apologies if I’m forgetting.)

Leslie Soden currently is on the commission, and has a term that lasts for two more years. Lisa Larsen is on the on the commission and seeking re-election. She was the top vote-winner in the August primary election, which usually translates into good things in the general election. Jennifer Ananda also is on the ballot. She finished fourth in the primary election, which is one spot away from victory. Only the top three vote-winners get a seat on the commission. (The top two vote-winners get a four-year term, while the third-place finisher gets a two-year term.) But Ananda wasn’t far behind, and certainly fourth-place finishers in the primary have made their way into top three in the general elections before.

In terms of results from the August primary, they are listed below. Everybody starts over, however, in the general election. That said, however, the primary results do give you a good idea of how much ground candidates have to make up. This year’s results showed a pretty tight race among four candidates for the top three spots. The fifth-place candidate, Mike Anderson, was the top fundraiser for the general election, which sometimes can be a sign of momentum, but the results suggest he does have ground to make up.

Lisa Larsen: 3,743 votes

Matthew Herbert: 2,904 votes

Dustin Stumblingear: 2,798 votes

Jennifer Ananda: 2,572 votes

Mike Anderson: 1,695 votes

Bassem Chahine: 1,342

• If you have been aiming to research all the candidates — both city and school — and just haven’t got around to it, check out our online edition of the 2017 Voters Guide. You can see that here.