Path to civic engagement for Kansas’ marginalized communities littered with barriers

After the Douglas County Commission approved a costly expansion for the county jail, Shannon Portillo decided to run for office, calling it a "live your values moment." (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Shannon Portillo remembers the glares and sideways glances cast at her father, a darker-skinned, Mexican American man, and her mother, a blond, blue-eyed, white woman, as they entered their polling location together.

Despite the looks, her parents took pride in voting, said Portillo, the assistant VP of academic affairs at the University of Kansas Edwards Campus and the Democratic nominee for Douglas County Commission.

“My parents walked together into every polling palace and, often, did not vote the same. There were always conversations about politics and parties,” Portillo said. “So voting has always been of importance to me and my family.”

Access to civic engagement — running for office and voting in particular — for many people like Portillo and her parents in marginalized communities across Kansas is littered with internal barriers and external hurdles they must frequently overcome.

Portillo shared her experiences on both sides, as a voter and candidate from a fringe community, during a panel hosted this week by the Emily Taylor Center for Women and Gender Equity at the University of Kansas.

She sees the same issues statewide and in the Douglas County community, despite how progressive some residents of the area may view themselves. Throughout her campaign, her inbox has been flooded with racist and sexist messages.

Portillo said she chose to run for office after the Douglas County Commission approved a long-debated $29 million expansion for the county jail in March, funded by tax bonds and potentially furthering the city’s debt. This action occurred despite the public voting against the expansion in 2018.

“We’ve seen the effects of mass incarceration on marginalized communities, and what we saw was that playing out on the local level,” Portillo said. “So deciding to run was a ‘living my values’ moment.”

Pam McDermott, Portillo’s Republican opponent for county commission, also found her motivation to run after her experience advocating against the county jail, as a member of Justice Matters, an interfaith citizen group dedicated to fighting injustice in the Lawrence community.

After research and conversations with the community dating back six years, McDermott felt strongly that increased funding toward mental health services would alleviate the need for jail expansion and help address the issue of mass incarceration.

McDermott said she cannot understand why commissioners were unable to hear public outcry and change their course.

“They were extremely hostile and dismissive and, even when every precinct voted against the expansion, they were extremely unrelenting that the expansion would happen,” McDermott said. “That was an opportunity I felt they should have been able to pause and see the vote as an opportunity to bring the community together. I decided to run because of that experience. I know I would have been able to hear people.”

This type of experience and unresponsiveness from elected officials can cause a lot of disillusionment in government and elections, especially among younger voters, said Cille King, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas. She said it is critical to connect with young voters early or risk losing them completely.

“Whether it’s because they don’t want to or don’t know how to, we’ve found that if someone doesn’t vote by the age of 30 there is a very high chance they will never vote,” King said.

Juan Ramiro Sarmiento, who joined Portillo during the KU panel, is a gay, millennial Latino voter from a low-income, mixed-immigration-status family in Wichita. He detailed the hurdles he and other young voters must overcome to have the same access to government processes as anyone else.

Sarmiento can recall the struggles he faced when he attended KU but was required to vote in Wichita, his permanent place of residence. He did not have a car and, even if he did, registering to vote was not his top priority.

“I was more focused on doing well in my classes or how I was going to pay for food to eat,” Sarmiento said.

Today, Sarmiento finds himself in a vastly different situation. He has graduated from KU and now has stable housing, a car and a job working for Young Invincibles, an advocacy group aimed at elevating the voices of young adults in the political process.

Sarmiento said he wants to ensure not only increased turnout among young and marginalized voters, but also to help dismantle the roadblocks — like difficulties voting from college or unfair voter registration laws  — in their way.

“We don’t have a diverse government right now. What we do have is the means to get there, but that is constantly in danger,” Sarmiento said. “We aren’t voting for something inspirational or amazing. We are voting to survive.”