Kansas spring elections should be moved

Moving spring elections to fall of even-numbered years would produce more votes on local offices like city council and school board.

Before each election, observers such as newspaper editorialists and others urge citizens to get registered and to vote. After the election — especially spring elections in Kansas — the same parties lament the usually low voter turnout.

There is a pattern that could be used if we want more voters in city and school elections. That pattern is that in Sedgwick County, on average, people vote in fall elections at nearly 2.5 times the rate of voting in spring elections.

Summary of Sedgwick County Elections since 2000, 2015-02-09I’ve gathered statistics for elections in Sedgwick County, and these numbers show that voter turnout in spring elections is much lower than in fall elections. (For these statistics I count the August primary as part of the fall election cycle.) Since 2000, turnout for fall elections, both primary and general, has been 44 percent. Over the same period, spring elections turnout has been 18 percent. There were two special elections during this period, one in spring, and one in the fall cycle. I did not include them in these statistics.

Remarkably, a special Wichita citywide election in February 2012 with just one question on the ballot had voter turnout of 13.7 percent. One year earlier, in April 2011, the spring general election had four of six city council districts contested and a citywide mayoral election. Turnout was 12.8 percent, less than for a single-question election.

The problem of low voter participation in off-cycle elections is not limited to Sedgwick County or Kansas. In her paper “Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups,” Sarah F. Anzia writes “A well developed literature has shown that the timing of elections matters a great deal for voter turnout. … When cities and school districts hold elections at times other than state and national elections, voter turnout is far lower than when those elections are held at the same time as presidential or gubernatorial elections.”

Since this paper, Anzia has written, and University of Chicago Press published, a book on this topic: Timing and Turnout: How Off-Cycle Elections Favor Organized Groups.

In the paper, Anzia explains that when voter participation is low, it opens the door for special interest groups to dominate the election: “When an election is separated from other elections that attract higher turnout, many eligible voters abstain, but interest group members that have a large stake in the election outcome turn out at high rates regardless of the increase in the cost of voting. Moreover, interest groups’ efforts to strategically mobilize supportive voters have a greater impact on election outcomes when overall turnout is low. Consequently, the electoral influence of interest groups is greater in off-cycle elections than in on-cycle elections. As a result, the policy made by officials elected in off-cycle elections should be more favorable to dominant interest groups than policy made by officials elected in on-cycle elections.” (Election Timing and the Electoral Influence of Interest Groups, Sarah F. Anzia, Stanford University, Journal of Politics, April 2011, Vol. 73 Issue 2, p 412-427, version online here.)

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