Douglas County voters shatter turnout record in August primary; clerk’s office preparing for large turnout in November
photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World File Photo
Douglas County voters recently shattered a turnout record for a primary election, as thousands more votes were cast than in previous years.
The huge increase in voting has led the County Clerk’s Office to prepare for an even larger general election, including adding more dropoff boxes for advance mail ballots to be returned by hand.
County Clerk Jamie Shew recently told the Journal-World that the Aug. 4 primary election saw a turnout of 37% of all registered voters, or a total of a little more than 29,000 ballots cast. The recent turnout far outpaced the previous high for a primary election in the county, which was 23% in 2018, he said. Additionally, the turnout more than doubled the average for a primary election in Douglas County, which is usually in the 15%-17% range.
“It compares to none of them,” Shew said when asked how the recent primary compares to previous years. “It blows everything out of the water.”
A majority of the votes for the primary election came through the mail. Shew said more than 20,000 advance mail ballots were requested, which is itself a record, and close to 18,000 of those ballots were returned and counted. Shew said that was not only the most the county had counted, but was thousands more than the previous record of about 13,000 in 2018.
That increase is likely caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, as many voters chose to cast ballots through the mail rather than go to a public polling place. But even voters casting ballots in person outpaced Shew’s expectations, he said. That may be because the county also saw a large increase in new types of voters, including more ballots cast by voters between the ages of 18 to 29 and more voters casting a ballot in a primary election for the first time.
Shew said he wasn’t sure what drove those numbers. He speculated it could have been because many county positions up for election had contested primaries. As the Journal-World previously reported, almost all of the county positions were going to be decided in the Democratic Party’s primary elections.
With the massive turnout, the election process also took longer than normal, as one of the Douglas County Commission races took weeks after election day before a winner was declared. But with all the challenges and increased voting the county saw this year, Shew said he was proud of how his staff handled it.
“I’m so grateful for everybody who made this work,” Shew said, noting that the county saw former election workers drop out this year because of the pandemic. “Our community stepped up and we had a lot of people who were brand new board workers on election day.
“I’m thrilled with how it went,” he said.
Moving forward, Shew said he thought the primary election helped his staff learn what it could do to improve for the general election in November. He said he expected to see a similar increase — both by mail and in person — as the coronavirus pandemic continues and voters cast ballots for the presidential election. So far, the clerk’s office has received 24,000 advance mail ballot requests for the general election, which is already more than the primary election had.
“It’s going to be very busy,” Shew said.
One of the improvements the county is making is setting up more drop boxes for voters to hand-deliver their advance mail ballots. As national changes to the U.S. Postal Service in recent weeks have caused concern among voters about whether their ballots will be returned in time, adding more drop boxes could help advance mail voters bypass the postal service altogether.
In the primary, the county set up three drop boxes for advance mail ballots. For the general election, Shew said he has ordered six more. He also said his office was considering ballot dropoff events, which he hoped would inspire voters to participate.
With those ballot boxes set up, Shew said he expected to see many of the advance mail ballots returned that way. However, despite the concerns about the Postal Service, Shew said he was confident that the local post office would get the job done.
“We have a really good working relationship with our post office and the Kansas City processing center,” Shew said. “I’m confident both are going to work really hard to expedite our ballots.”
Douglas County residents have until Oct. 13 to register to vote in the Nov. 3 general election. Those who wish to vote through mail have until Oct. 27 to request an advance mail ballot.
Contact Dylan Lysen
Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact reporter Dylan Lysen: