Politics & Government

Do we like voting in autumn better than voting in the spring?

By Dion Lefler

dlefler@wichitaeagle.com

November 05, 2017 10:00 AM

UPDATED November 05, 2017 02:10 PM

City and school board elections are Tuesday and the question looms large: How many people will show up at a different time and in some cases, different places, than they have in years past?

If advanced voting is an indicator, the state Legislature’s action to move local elections from April to November is showing mixed results, according to the latest turnout figures from the Sedgwick County election office.

The City Council and school board election is off to a faster start than the similar election of 2013, but not quite as fast a start as 2015, where there were more high-profile races, said Tabitha Lehman, Sedgwick County election commissioner.

Never miss a local story.

Sign up today for a free 30 day free trial of unlimited digital access.

At the end of voting Friday, 2038 voters had cast in-person advance ballots, compared with 1,069 at the same point in 2013.

This year’s turnout is down compared with the 2015 election, which had drawn 3,185 advance votes by the Friday before the election.

Mail ballots are down compared with both 2015 and 2013: 2,616 so far this year, compared with 3,483 two years ago and 2,746 four years ago.

Lehman said she expects turnout by Tuesday to finish somewhere between the 6.2 percent of eligible voters who cast ballots in 2013 and the 16.3 percent turnout in 2015.

Beyond that: “Because it’s changed, I’m not really sure what to say,” Lehman said. “I expect it to be somewhere between 13 and 15 .... I know that’s really great, but I don’t know for sure, because this is the first time (on a fall schedule).”

Also on Tuesday, about a sixth of Sedgwick County voters will have new polling locations, Lehman said.

She said her office has sent about 50,000 notices to voters that their polling places have changed sometime this year.

The main reason for moving polls around was a special election to fill the unexpired term of U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, who resigned from Congress to take a job of CIA director in the Trump Administration. That special election was held on April 11 – an unusual date to have an election – so some of the regular polling places weren’t available, she said.

Voters can verify where they vote by calling the county election office at 316-660-7100 or by visiting the Web site at http://www.sedgwickcounty.org/elections/.

Even after Election Day, it will be hard to say how much change in voting behavior can be attributed to the change in the election calendar, because each election is different, Lehman said.

For example, the 2015 election had a Wichita mayoral race on the ballot and a citizens’ initiative to reduce the criminal penalties for marijuana. Both of those items boosted turnout compared with 2013, when it was just City Council seats like this year, Lehman said.

How we got here

The change in the election calendar was a compromise born of necessity.

On the old schedule, city and school elections were held in late February and early April, leaving little more than a month to transition from primary to general election.

That wasn’t enough time to meet federal and state requirements that election officials mail absentee ballots to military and other voters overseas 45 days before Election Day, Lehman said.

The Legislature took up the issue in 2015.

Some members wanted to move the local election dates to fall in even-numbered years, when voters already vote on president, Congress, governor and other state offices. Some proposals would have also changed the system so that local city and school candidates would run by party, instead of the current nonpartisan elections.

Had that happened, it would have resulted in higher turnout, said Kenneth Ciboski, a professor emeritus of political science at Wichita State University.

Adding parties would also have given Republican candidates for city and school district offices a distinct advantage, Ciboski said. In recent years, the GOP has dominated the top-of-ticket races and voters would probably vote their party on lesser-known candidates down the ballot, he said.

The last Democrat to carry Kansas in a presidential race was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. And Kansas Democrats haven’t won a statewide race since 2006 or a congressional race since 2008.

But the idea of combining federal, state and local races into one ballot drew a strong pushback from local elected officials, fearful that their races would be influenced by national politics or simply forgotten at the end of a long ballot.

Lawmakers eked out a bare majority to shift elections from the spring to the fall, but in odd-numbered years.

That put the local elections on an August-November schedule like federal and state general elections, but kept them as stand-alone elections.

The space between August primaries and November general elections gives election officials enough time to send out the absentee ballots on time, Lehman said.

Ciboski said overall, he doesn’t think what the Legislature did will change voting behavior much at all.

He said most people don’t pay much attention to low-level politics and studies show that those who do tend to be better educated and higher income.

“There’s one thing I’ve observed, people are more interested in state and national elections than local elections,” Ciboski said. “This is what really gets me upset, when people talk about (the superiority of) local control and that government which is closest to you.”

Senator changes her mind

State Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau of Wichita, the ranking Democrat on the Senate elections committee, said she intially opposed moving local elections to fall because she thought it would confuse voters.

But she said her thinking has evolved as she’s watched this year’s campaign unfold.

Her district is the site of a hardfought race for the seat representing Wichita City Council District 1, where activist Brandon Johnson and former USD 259 school board member Mike Kinard have run a spirited campaign of forums, yard signs and door-knocking.

“Both candidates are running really hard and getting the word out there that there is a vote coming up,” Faust-Goudeau said. “I think most voters are now aware the times of the local elections were changed ... and that spring elections are now in the fall.”

She said she’d still oppose any future effort to move local elections to the even-year general election ballot.

“It would be too many names on the ballot,” she said. “We talk about voter fatigue, that voters would get a lot of mail from different races going on.”

In addition to the long list of candidates, she said, there are usually state ballot questions in the even-year elections, which would further draw attention away from other races.

A bit of confusion

As with all elections, this one has its quirks leading to confusion.

Lehman and Faust-Goudeau both said they’ve heard from voters confused by the procedure for electing Wichita school board members.

There was no school district primary this year because there weren’t enough candidates to justify one. If there had been, only voters in those candidates’ geographic districts would have been able to vote.

But the rules change for the general election and every voter in the school district gets to vote in every race, regardless of whether their member’s district is up for election.

Faust-Goudeau said that confounded a friend of hers who wasn’t sure her ballot was correct. The friend wound up voting in only two of the four races, because she didn’t know anything about the candidates for the other two seats.

Lehman said people have fairly regularly asked if it’s a ballot glitch and the poll workers are instructed to assure them that it’s not.

“We’re not in the habit of putting something on their ballot that they’re not actually eligible to vote for,” Lehman said.

Lehman is hoping this is the year people decide to mob the polls on election day.

Low-turnout is kind of depressing because it takes about the same amount of prep work to run a low-turnout election as a high-turnout one, she said.

Ballots have to be prepared, printing has to be done, voting machines have to be programmed and tested, polling places have to be secured and election workers have to be hired and trained and supervised.

“It’s kind of frustrating to do that and not have as many people vote,” Lehman said. “We feel like we went through all of this work for you, would you please go vote?”