A 2015 law designed to increase voter turnout may not be having the intended results. When lawmakers moved local elections from the spring to the fall, many advocates of the proposal thought the change would lead to higher voter turnout. However, turnout from the Aug. 6 local elections has some people questioning whether the change is netting desired results.

The Wichita Eagle recently bemoaned low turnover rates of the local primary elections in Sedgwick County, but the story doesn’t paint an accurate picture of turnout,  according to deputy general counsel for the Kansas Secretary of State says.

“It’s a primary,” Clay Barker said. “A local election primary, so you can’t really compare the turnout to a lot of other years.”

Only 14 counties had local primary races, and results are a mixed bag. Turnout in Sedgwick County inched up from 9.8 percent to 10 percent between 2017 and 2019.

The Eagle’s story focuses on Sedgwick County, which had two primary races. In one, a crowded field of nine, nonpartisan mayoral candidates was pared to two, and a USD 259 at-large school board race, which narrowed a field of four to two.

The Eagle story begins, “A law aimed at increasing voter turnout by moving local elections from the spring to the fall got its first real test in Tuesday’s election for Wichita mayor–and the results were mixed at best. In the 2015 mayoral primary, the last spring election, turnout was a fairly dismal 9.8 percent. This time around, it was only slightly better when a flurry of late-arriving mail ballots inched it up to even 10 percent.”

Though Sedgwick County turnout was slightly up,  Johnson County turnout appears dismal at first glance.

In raw numbers, turnout in Johnson County was in the dungeon, compared to the last several years. Countywide, only 2.93 percent of registered cast ballots. But there was a much larger pool of eligible voters. A primary race for the at-large seats on the  Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees meant every registered voter in the county–all 414,329 of them–was eligible to vote. More than 12,000 voters did so. In 2013, 2015, and 2017, the number of eligible primary voters was much smaller. In 2015, for example, only 135,561 registered voters were eligible to vote in the four primary races that occurred that year, and 5.93 percent of those eligible, or 8,039, cast ballots. 

Mike Pirner, a political consultant who works with conservative candidates, says comparing primary turnout -year-over-year in local elections is a bad measurement because local primaries are unique. He uses the 2019 primary election in the city of Shawnee as an example. 

The first year local elections were held in the fall, 1,332 people cast ballots in Shawnee’s Ward 3 election on Aug. 1, 2017. Two years later, 1,984 Shawnee Ward 3 voters cast ballots in the fall primary election, marking a nearly 33 percent increase in the number of voters. 

Pirner explains ward 3 voters had more choices on the ballot in 2019 compared to 2017. There were two competitive council races there in Ward 3 and a mayor’s race versus only one competitive council race in the prior election, which translated to higher turnout.

“If you look in places where there was real competition, turnout was up,” Pirner says. “I can’t comment about what’s happening in the rest of the state, but if there’s no competition, no one shows up.”

So much of turnout is driven by candidate activity, according to Pirner.

“Are the candidates well-organized and well-funded? If so, yard signs go out and candidates go door-to-door and people realize they need to go vote,” he said.

A better measurement in the early years of the local-election timeline change might be to look at the number of competitive races during spring elections versus fall elections. But with 105 Kansas counties hosting primary local elections for countless municipalities and 286 school boards, gathering the data and gauging whether the races were competitive is difficult.

Barker senses that there was a little more interest in the local elections in 2019 compared to the interest when elections were last held in the spring. 

“There were a lot more activist groups involved this time, at least in Johnson County,” he said.

In even-year state and federal races, most candidates are aligned with the Republican or Democratic parties, which also assists in driving turnout. The parties pump money and resources into the races, helping reach voters. And until recently, the political parties didn’t play much of a role in local elections. 

“Candidate resources matter,” Pirner says. “Political parties themselves also play a role. Democrats are making a huge push to take over school boards and cities and it’s important Republicans also play there.”

Barker, a former executive director of the Kansas GOP, said pushing local elections to the fall allows political parties more time to recruit candidates and for potential candidates to learn about the jobs. The shortened timeline between the even-year, fall state elections, and the spring local elections posed challenges prior to moving odd-year elections to the fall, Barker said.

In 2015, the last local primary election before the legislative change, the local primary was on March 3. Only four months after the general election of November 2014.

“I remember you come out of a general, everyone is exhausted. Then it was the holidays. People hadn’t actually turned their attention to the next election,” Barker said.

The fall election timeline also gives election workers in Kansas’s 105 counties more time to prepare.

“Everyone’s goal is more turnout. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to get it done,” Barker says. “I think moving the elections should help turnout, but it may take a little longer than we thought.”

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