A “vote here” sign is displayed Oct. 25, 2022, at the Shawnee County Election Office in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas examines the effect county election officials can have on voter turnout and urges them to adopt policies that support democracy.
The 30-page report, released this week, identifies a link between barriers — such as fewer polling places on Election Day or limited office hours for advanced voting — and participation in elections. It points a finger at state lawmakers who pushed to join “more extreme states” in restricting voter access since the 2020 presidential election.
Earlier this year, the Legislature considered proposals to ban ballot drop boxes and passed a bill, which was nullified by Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto, that would have eliminated the three-day grace period for mail ballots to arrive after Election Day.
“As extremists continue to spread narratives about voter fraud and election security, this recent attempt to undermine eligible voters’ ability to participate raises concerns about what some state lawmakers may have planned for future sessions,” the report says.
The report focuses on the power of county election officials to determine how to run an election, and the “wild variations” in those decisions from one county to the next. The county clerk, an elected position, administers elections in all but the four most populous counties in Kansas. The secretary of state appoints a commissioner to oversee elections in Johnson, Wyandotte, Sedgwick and Shawnee counties.
The ACLU previously examined the topic in a 2018 report, and the new report found that counties with low voter turnout appear to have taken no steps to address the issue. Overall, voter participation in Kansas declined by more than 5 percentage points, from 55.76% of registered voters casting a ballot in the 2018 general election, to 50.5% showing up for the 2022 general election.
That is more than the national decline of 4.4 percentage points.
County officials could improve voter turnout, the report says, by extending the early voting period to 20 days before an election, the maximum allowed under state law, and by keeping offices open on Saturday and outside of normal business hours during that 20-day window. The county election officials who limited the early voting period reported significantly lower turnout than counties that provided the most opportunities for early voting, the report found.
By maximizing the opportunities to vote in advance of an election, the report estimates, at least 20,803 more Kansans statewide could participate.
Similarly, the report found a the number of voters assigned to a polling place on Election Day had a significant effect. In places where fewer than 500 voters were assigned to a polling location, the average turnout was 62.47%. The turnout was 36.27% in places where more than 4,000 voters were assigned to a poll.
Seward County had the most voters assigned per polling place with 5,460, as well as the lowest voter turnout at 27.23%.
"It is a simple fact that Election Day will not always be the most convenient time to cast a ballot," the report said. "Work, family, health, weather, and access to transportation all play a significant role in voters’ ability to be present in-person at a polling location on Election Day. Additionally, Election Day is the busiest day at a polling place, leading to wait times and, often, frustration. Research has shown that long lines at the polls can force some people to leave without voting and even potentially depress future turnout."
Other areas where counties could improve voter turnout include providing materials in languages other than English, ensuring disabled voters have access to curbside voting, and establishing a vote-from-jail program.
State law and the federal Americans with Disabilities Act require counties to provide curbside voting, but eight counties explicitly state they don't offer curbside voting. Another 29 counties only offer the service upon request, and four require advance notice. Only two reported that they have visible signage about curbside voting. In several reported cases from Butler, Sedgwick and Shawnee counties, voters who asked for the service were told it wasn't available and some were turned away.
The report noted that the four largest counties, the ones with election commissioners appointed by the secretary of state, failed to provide signage and materials in both English and Spanish. This demonstrates "a significant area of potential voter disenfranchisement, affecting tens of thousands of voters," the report found.
The ACLU of Kansas enlisted Global Strategy Group, a New York City-based research firm that frequently works with Democrats, to survey 600 registered voters in Kansas from Jan. 26 to 31. The polling found that 51% of Kansans strongly agree, and 19% somewhat agree, that elected officials should make it easier to vote, not harder.
"Democracy in Kansas remains a locally contingent phenomenon," the report concludes. "County election policies paint a varied, seemingly randomized and colorful patchwork of results across the state. Kansans clearly continue to face inconsistent access to vote. A voter’s access to democracy in the Free State is often barred by unnecessary and arbitrary barriers posed by the very election process itself, and from ease of early voting access, to curbside voting, to the long lines or the long drive to get to vote, each of these barriers is the result of a decision by the county’s respective election official, whether that decision constitutes an action or lack thereof."
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