Convenience plays as important a role in voter participation as political passion or apathy, according to an analysis of recent state elections published today by the ACLU of Kansas.
The report, based on surveys of election officials and voting trends across the state, claims local officials have such varied policies that it influenced turnout in the 2016 and 2018 general elections.
“In far too many ways, the health of our democracy -- and the extent to which an individual citizen’s vote counts -- is based on the county in which one lives,” the report said.
Compared to other parts of the United States, Kansas voter health is not good, the study said, while pointing out the state ranked:
• 40th in the nation in registration of eligible voters (71 percent).
• 34th in voter turnover for the 2016 presidential general election (59.2 percent)
• 46th in registered voters who represent the state’s actual population.
The report points to the policies of Secretary of State Kris Kobach as only part of the problem. The ACLU sued Kobach and this past summer a federal judge ruled the restrictive voter registration policies unconstitutional.
With Kobach leaving office at the end of the year, the ACLU appears to have turned its attention towards local election officials.
The analysis says those officials could do more to change policies and encourage more people to vote, including adding more polling places, extending early voting hours and conducting more educational outreach to underrepresented populations, such as ethnic minorities and college students.
The Kansas County Clerks and Election Officials Association has a committee that formulates policies and works with the Secretary of State’s office on legislative initiatives.
Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho chairs that committee and said members have discussed how to make access to voting more uniform across the state.
“We’re all trying to get the job done, but perhaps we’re not all moving at the same pace,” Piepho said. “Election officials are designed by law to be independent for a reason, so they can best serve the needs of their county’s voters.”
Differing practices, however, can have stifle voting, the ACLU reports says.
One example is early voting. In Kansas, early voting has to take place at least seven days and can be as many as 20 days, before the election. But the ACLU report showed a wide variance in county practices and said that directly effects voter turnout.
Only 10 counties in Kansas offered early voting for 15 or more days, the report said, but those counties had a 58.2 percent voter participation in this year’s general election.
As days dropped, so did participation with the 10 counties who offered early voting for fewer than seven days finished with a 51.9 percent turnout rate. Only 22 percent of Kansas counties offered early voting outside regular business hours, and once again, the more accessibility to voting resulted in higher voter participation, the report showed.
Shawnee County, which had a 68 percent turnout in this year’s general election, and Elk County (68 percent) both had extended hours.
Location, location, location
The number of polling places proved another concern pointed out in the report. Kansas voting locations, on average, have 1,611 assigned voters -- comparable to the national average of 1,547.
But some of the smaller counties had the highest congestion of voters.
The ACLU brought legal action against Ford County before the last general election in a move that put Dodge City in the national spotlight. The city’s only polling place, which served 13,000 voters, moved outside the city limits to a location inaccessible to public transit. After the ACLU complained, the city offered free buses on election day. A lawsuit against the county is still pending.
Reno County has 23,189 voters assigned to the Kansas State Fairgrounds. Comanche County had the least crowded precinct with 261 voters.
“We actually don’t have any issues with our fairground location,” said Reno County Clerk Donna Patton said. “We’re able to have someone from our office there the whole day to address problems right away. People get through very quickly, and we’ve never had an issue.”
Despite the fairground’s high number, Reno County has 27 polling places to keep it below the state average with 1,503 voters per precinct.
The report found the lower number of voters per precinct the higher the turnout. Shawnee County’s 68 percent turnout with an average of 1,116 voters per location.
Wyandotte County, meanwhile, drew 49 percent with of 2,682 voters assigned per precinct. Seward County had the state’s highest average of 5,142 voters per polling place and the second-lowest turnout at 36.8 percent.
“The research conducted for this report indicated that fewer and fewer counties were making use of public school buildings as polling locations, despite a state law that grants county election officials priority use of these facilities,” the report stated.
“Every county official would like to have more precincts, but that runs into money,” Piepho said. “You have to have three people working at every location, so you don’t want to end up with a location with a few voters. A lot of places that used to be polling places don’t want to do it anymore. Schools have security concerns of people coming in when students are there. So it gets complicated.”
Representation through registration
The report also contends that Kansas needs to do a better job making sure voters represent the state’s residents. Most voters are older white residents, while young people and minorities are not registered in as big of numbers. Of those eligible to vote, only 55 percent of blacks are registered and 62 percent of Hispanics, compared to 74.4 percent of white voters.
“It’s so hard to get people registered to vote,” Patton, Reno County’s clerk said. “People think their vote doesn’t count. But it does.”
Piepho said he agrees with the report’s assessment that election officials do more than count votes. And county clerks are accountable to the voters, just like any other elected office.
“Our job is to manage the election from voter registration through the election,” Piepho said. “I would love to see 100 percent voter turnout. I also have a governmental budget, so I can’t go out and push it like the political parties can. If the voters don’t like the way I run elections, they’ll let me know. I’m an elected official, too. In Kansas, we 101 election officials who are on the ballot every four years.”