Young Kansas voters embrace political power in fight to preserve democracy
Record turnout for abortion vote in Aug. 2 primary counters concerns about attempts to undermine election integrity
Isabella Vermooten, an 18-year-old Washburn University student, stops at a League of Women Voters of Topeka and Shawnee County voter registration booth Aug. 30, 2022, on the campus lawn. Vermooten says voting is a way for people her age to force older adults to listen to them. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy.
TOPEKA — Isabella Vermooten is the kind of person who “literally went through and pestered everyone in my contacts” until they showed her evidence they were registered to vote.
The 18-year-old from Lawrence was eager to cast a ballot for the first time in the Aug. 2 primary, where access to reproductive health care was on the line. An unexpected landslide vote to preserve abortion rights only intensified her enthusiasm for democracy.
Vermooten is a freshman political science major at Washburn University in Topeka, where she stopped by a League of Women Voters registration booth in late August on the campus lawn. She spoke passionately about using the ballot box to guarantee basic rights and representation for her family and community.
“I mean, heck, half the women in my family wouldn’t be alive if they wouldn’t be able to have an abortion, because they miscarried or some other health effect,” Vermooten said. “I want my little sister, if she ever, God forbid, was sexually assaulted, I want her to be able to have control over her body.”
Vermooten paused for a deep exhale.
“Sorry,” she continued. “It’s really important to me. You know when you were younger and you wish that adults would listen to you? That’s what this gives you — the right to be heard.”
Young adults in Kansas, despite being disillusioned with government, now recognize their political power. Their willingness to vote in record numbers serves as a counterbalance to the prevailing sentiment that democracy is failing.
Researchers at Tufts University predict young voters in Kansas could have a decisive impact in the outcome of the governor’s race and 3rd District congressional race. The university’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, identified a spike in voter registrations among 18- to 24-year-olds in Kansas ahead of the primary election.
“It looks like young people are, as always, engaged and paying attention,” said Ruby Belle Booth, election coordinator at CIRCLE. “And a lot of young people have the intention to vote, just as many if not more than in 2018. And I think that young people are definitely attuned to a lot of the really big issues — abortion obviously being one of them.”
But when those young voters consider their choices in November, they will see on their ballots the names of congressmen who opposed the certification of the 2020 election results and a candidate for attorney general whose political career is built on lies about widespread voter fraud.
Election deniers even challenged the validity of the Aug. 2 vote on the constitutional amendment, subjecting exhausted election officials to a frivolous and costly recount.
The GOP-controlled Legislature, keenly aware of how President Donald Trump’s Big Lie appealed to some Republicans, passed new laws that jeopardize participation in elections. Some legislators even courted hucksters who peddled debunked myths about election integrity.
And the sheriff of the state’s most populous county spreads voter fraud conspiracies without providing evidence to support his extraordinary claims. Lawmakers have placed another constitutional amendment on the November ballot to protect the sheriff from being replaced by county commissioners.
Mary Galligan, a volunteer with the League of Women Voters of Topeka and Shawnee County, said these threats to democracy are troubling.
“We’re teetering,” Galligan said. “There’s a lot of social rumble, or social murmur, that there’s something wrong. We don’t know what. We can’t put our finger on it. But there’s something wrong. Rather than increasing people’s faith in the process that we have, it’s discouraging people. It’s making them hesitant.”
Pale, male and stale
Galligan, gruff and 72, says the only good thing to come out of the Vietnam War “was that people my age learned that voting was important.”
She bulldogged shoppers at the farmer’s market on a hot August morning outside the public library, asking if they were registered to vote and informed about November ballot questions. Her 65-year-old sidekick, Gretchen Gleue, said the Watergate scandal had motivated her to vote.
Now, they said, the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has become a catalyst for compelling young women to vote.
“They’re outspoken,” Gleue said. “They don’t want male, pale and stale making decisions that impact them.”
Amber Dickinson, an associate professor of political science at Washburn University, said record turnout for the Aug. 2 primary is a clear indication that politics is becoming more accessible to young people.
“Thank goodness,” Dickinson said. “For so long in America, younger voters have been alienated from political discussions, and in many cases, issues concerning younger voters are never highlighted during election seasons or legislative sessions. With issues like the abortion amendment, minimum wage, and student loan debt, politicians are finally offering young people a seat at the table.”
Booth, the Tufts University researcher, said young people are especially interested in reproductive rights, climate, gun violence and the economy.
A lot of young people talk about being disillusioned with democracy, Booth said. Among adults younger than 30, 69% agree that elected officials are motivated by selfish reasons. More than half agree that politics have become too partisan and no longer meet the challenges the U.S. is facing. Republicans have a slightly greater feeling of dissatisfaction, she said, but the feelings are prevalent across partisan lines.
“People pretty overwhelmingly agree that the country’s not on the right track,” Booth said. “They don’t feel like government necessarily represents them or is working effectively.”
There is irony in the research: Young voters who are more cynical about government are also more likely to vote.
“Young people tend to not be disillusioned about their own power within our democratic system,” Booth said. “I think that that highlights something really important when it comes to talking about young people in democracy, which is that even if they don’t like the system, they can still participate in it, they’re still willing to participate in it, and they know their role in democracy.”
Vermooten, the student who voted for the first time in the Aug. 2 primary, said “it felt amazing.” Opposition to the constitutional amendment, she pointed out, transcended political divides.
“It didn’t matter whether you were red or blue or undecided, because this was a multiparty issue,” Vermooten said. “So anyone who felt this way voted this way. They put aside their differences and they were able to vote on this monumental issue and make their voices heard.”
She added: “It was awe-inspiring, honestly.”
The way Melissa Leavitt sees it, “the mainstream media is the worst thing that ever happened to this country.”
The Colby resident lashed out at the media in a series of TikTok posts as election officials wrapped up their recount of the abortion amendment vote.
Leavitt, with the help of a faith-based online fundraiser and Wichita anti-abortion activist Mark Gietzen, agreed to pay $119,000 to recount 556,364 ballots by hand. The effort moved the margin of rejection by 63 votes.
Secretary of State Scott Schwab, who defeated an election denier in the GOP primary, said the recount proved there is no systemic election fraud in Kansas.
Leavitt remained unconvinced.
In an Aug. 19 interview with Gab TV, she blamed the media for “trying to weaponize our government against us.” In her TikTok videos, she complained that reporters were too stupid to understand the truth about election fraud. She encouraged supporters to ready themselves for a fight.
“Now is the time,” Leavitt said in an Aug. 24 video. “I believe a shift has taken place, and this is the last push. And things are going to get wild, and just take heart, guys, because I think it’s all for the best.”
Leavitt’s distrust in the election system is an extension of lies told by political leaders for personal gain.
Former Secretary of State Kris Kobach falsely claimed for years that elections were compromised by illegal immigrants. He convinced legislators to support an unconstitutional law that required new voters to prove their citizenship, disenfranchising more than 30,000 eligible voters. The American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged the law in a case where even the federal judge mocked Kobach’s inability to prove his claims, and ordered him to take additional law classes.
Kobach is now the Republican nominee for attorney general.
Three incumbent Republican congressmen — U.S. Reps. Tracey Mann, Jake LaTurner and Ron Estes — all voted against the certification of the 2020 presidential election.
Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden claimed his office received 200 tips of election fraud, but an open records request by KCUR showed there was only one complaint, which wasn’t credible enough to warrant prosecution.
At a recent public forum, Hayden claimed “nefarious” individuals were trying to compromise the county’s voting machines. The warning came with this acknowledgement: “I can’t prove it.”
Local officials who were concerned by Hayden’s behavior last year wondered if the sheriff should be an appointed position. The Legislature responded by proposing a constitutional amendment that would require sheriffs in Kansas to be elected. The question will be answered by voters statewide in November.
In March, Republican lawmakers invited Ohio math teacher Douglas Frank to testify about his discredited algorithm for finding irregularities in voting data. Frank and other hucksters then entertained a Topeka church crowd, which included Republican legislators, with bogus conspiracies.
Dickinson, the Washburn University professor, said it is “deeply concerning to hear people make claims of fraudulent voting when it has been proven over and over again that this is simply not happening in Kansas.”
“Voters should be extremely concerned,” Dickinson said. “We are living in a time when election certainty is crucial to instill us with confidence in our leaders, and voters should not have to worry that their vote will be questioned because someone is not pleased with the outcome.”
State lawmakers relied on concerns about hypothetical voter fraud to pass new laws restricting advanced voting and outreach efforts.
Galligan, the League of Women Voters volunteer, said voters have to be “absolutely doggedly determined” to participate in elections.
“The hassle factor has come from a variety of the laws that sometimes make it a little harder to register, make it a little harder to make a plan to vote,” Galligan said. “It doesn’t take much, as distracted and busy as people are today. We end up with discouraged voters.”
Social media platforms and polarizing pundits have intensified political distrust, Dickinson said.
Most people, she said, just want solutions to the real problems they face regularly in their lives. Democracy would be better off if people left their online bubbles for the refuge of fact-based sources.
“We also need to find a way to educate people on the importance of regular voting habits from an early age,” Dickinson said. “Waiting until someone is of voting age to bring this to their attention is not productive. We also need to start holding politicians accountable. We are not helpless.”
Vermooten, the Washburn University student, gets frustrated with peers who think their votes won’t matter.
“Democracy is not dead,” Vermooten said. “Not so long as everybody is able and willing and fights to preserve our democracy, and fights to keep the truth. So long as you don’t give in and you keep fighting for the truth and the policies you believe in and are willing to listen to other people about their opinions on topics.
“I feel like one of the reasons most people think democracy is dead is because a lot of the higher ups, they stopped listening to each other. They stopped talking and compromising. If you can’t compromise, then what’s democracy for? If you’re not going to talk to each other on these issues, then they are complicit in breaking democracy.”
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