Low primary turnout in spring elections prompted move to late summer. Analysis shows little increase in votes.

Blaise Mesa Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Empty voter booths await residents of Shawnee County at Heritage Hall by the Stormont Vail Events Center during the primary elections earlier this month.

Only 9.7% of eligible voters cast a ballot in Topeka's 2021 primary election. However, the disappointing turnout isn't a sign that changes to spur higher turnout have failed, at least not yet.

Election Day changed in 2017, but voter turnout hasn’t shown many signs of increasing since then. The Capital-Journal reviewed voter turnout from 2010-2020 in Shawnee, Sedgwick and Douglas county elections.

The 2015 change moved local elections from the spring to the fall of odd-numbered years, with the stated goal of increasing voter turnout.

But voter turnout among all three counties peaked at 16.59% during Douglas County’s 2015 general election. Voter turnout was generally between 10%-16% during the 15 odd-year elections from 2011-2015. Three elections attracted fewer than 10% of people with the lowest turnout, 4.4%, coming in Shawnee County’s 2013 primary election.

Elections after the switch saw mixed results with each county having at least one odd-year election around 20% voter turnout.

League of Women Voters wants more data

“We need more data to say with any certainty whether the move in election date has helped or hurt turnout,” said Carole Jordan, Topeka League of Women Voters president, in an emailed statement. “This will only be our second fall mayoral election since the law changed. The primary turnout was pretty dismal, but maybe that’s because of the state laws passed in the last session that make it harder for the League and other groups to do voter registration and education efforts."

The League of Women Voters of Kansas and other voter advocacy groups halted voter registration drivers this summer in response to a new election law. Among other changes, HB 2183 criminalized conduct that gives the appearance of being an elections official.

More:As Kansas district attorney refuses to enforce election law, voter groups won’t resume registration drives

Tabitha Lehman, former Sedgwick County election commissioner, said she hasn’t seen the change in dates increase turnout. She said competitive races tend to be the driving factor in turnout.

Lehman said there were some positive unintended consequences of the switch. Military and overseas ballots must be sent to soldiers 45 days before an election, but spring elections wouldn’t allow enough time for that to happen.

“There wasn’t 45 days between the filing deadline and the primary, and there wasn’t 45 days between the primary and general election,” she said. “You can’t (send those ballots) if you don’t know who your candidates are. Something had to change because we were not compliant with other laws."

Lehman added that inclement weather is usually more of an issue in the spring. She said Sedgwick County once spent $10,000 clearing snow from polling places the morning of the election.

The original 2015 bill would have made local elections partisan and moved them to the fall of even-numbered years. Critics had said such a move would solidify conservative dominance of local city, county and school board government.

Lehman said moving local elections to even-numbered years would make ballots obscenely long.

Sedgwick County sees little change in turnout

The move from spring to fall hasn't made much of a difference on voter turnout in Sedgwick County. Turnout was 7.8% in the March 2011 primary, 4.7% in the February 2013 primary and 9.8% in the March 2015 primary, election results show.

In the primary elections since the law changed, Sedgwick County had 8.4% turnout in August 2017, 10.2% in August 2019 and 6.6% in August 2021.

Johnson County has seen an increase in voter turnout in the years since the change. Turnout was 5.4% in the March 2011 primary, 4.5% in the February 2013 primary and 5.9% in the March 2015 primary, election results show.

The primary elections in Johnson County since then had 9.9% turnout in August 2017, 8.3% in August 2019 and 14% in August 2021.

Whenever the elections are, Lehman just wants people to vote.

“The fact that these are the elections that have the lowest turnout is always intriguing to me when you consider that the officials elected in these elections are the ones who have the most direct impact on our day to day lives,” she said.