‘When is it going to be our time?’ Young Kansas voters jilted by candidates and election barriers

By: - September 15, 2023 9:00 am
Gov. Laura Kelly walks to fill out her ballot Oct. 25, 2022, at the Shawnee County Election Office in Topeka.

Gov. Laura Kelly walks to fill out her ballot Oct. 25, 2022, at the Shawnee County Election Office in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

This article is part of U.S. Democracy Day, a nationwide collaborative on Sept. 15, the International Day of Democracy, in which news organizations cover how democracy works and the threats it faces. To learn more, visit usdemocracyday.org.

TOPEKA — The way Dustin Morris sees it, his generation was sold a lot of false hope.

You were supposed to get a college degree and have a good life, he said. As it turns out, his generation could be the first to not have a higher standard of living than their parents.

Morris, the chairman of Kansas Young Republicans, said older generations wrongly believe younger adults are disinterested in politics. The through line across political boundaries, he said, is “built-up angst.”

“It’s kind of like, when is it going to be our time?” Morris said.

Kansans between the ages of 18 and 29 proved they could wield political power when 130,000 of them showed up to vote on the abortion referendum in August 2022. But 48,000 of those same voters stayed home three months later, with the governor’s office, congressional seats and legislative races at stake, according to one analysis.

Candidates for public office fail to recognize how important policy issues are for young voters, or are reluctant to invest time and money in a seemingly fickle voting bloc. But campaign ignorance is only part of the reason young voters shy away from elections. Local officials also influence voter turnout by making it easier or more difficult to cast a ballot — in advance of and on Election Day.

For Morris, a generational divide is evident in rising house prices — in Johnson County, where he lives, the average home price is now more than a half-million dollars. The cost of buying a home today is a greater burden than high interest rates in the early 1980s, he said.

And he scoffs at the idea that millennials or younger generations were somehow coddled, which he sometimes hears from older candidates. It was their parents, after all, who handed out the participation trophies — “we weren’t raising ourselves,” he said.

“We have politicians in Topeka saying, ‘How do we get young people to stay?’ Well, we got to make it more affordable to live here,” Morris said.

Across the political divide, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly identified the value of engaging young voters as a goal of her new Middle of the Road political action committee, which is raising money to support moderate Democrats and Republicans.

She said the advocacy groups that campaigned against last year’s constitutional amendment, which would have taken away the right to terminate a pregnancy, were good at messaging the issue so that young people understood how much it would affect them.

“I think we need to take that same idea and turn it around during general elections, particularly as we’re going into 2024,” Kelly said. “I think we need to learn from what happened with that constitutional amendment and put it into practice.”

“There are a lot of issues that are of great importance to the younger generation,” she added. “I think it’s just imperative that we work with our candidates to ensure that they are talking to those younger voters, and really making it clear to them why there’s so much at stake for them and why they need to come out.”

Dustin Morris, chairman of Kansas Young Republicans
Dustin Morris, chairman of Kansas Young Republicans, says the biggest misconception candidates for public office have about young adults is they are disinterested in politics. (Submitted)


‘What kind of message’

The top issues that gain the attention of young voters are inflation, abortion, good-paying jobs, climate change and gun violence, according to a survey conducted by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University after the 2022 midterms.

Alberto Medina, communications team lead for CIRCLE, was an author of a research report that concluded: “Young people are concerned about a wide range of issues, but many aren’t hearing from campaigns, lack information, and face barriers to voting.”

Based on voter files, Medina said for this story, about 130,000 Kansans between the ages of 18 and 29 voted on the constitutional amendment in August 2022. About 100,000 in the same age range voted in the November general election, but only 72,000 voted in both.

“Perhaps some youth, especially those for whom abortion was a major motivating issue, felt like they had already made their voices heard and taken action on it in August and didn’t feel the same need to do so again in November,” Medina said. “That may point to a lack of information and outreach from candidates and campaigns about other issues at play in the election and the impact that their vote could have on some of those other major concerns.”

Medina said Kansas had the second-highest growth in the nation for youth voter registration, which was up 42% from November 2021 to November 2022. That means apathy isn’t the problem, he said.

But the percentage of young voters who actually cast a ballot declined from 25.5% in November 2018 to 21.4% in November 2022.

In the national survey, some young adults who didn’t register said they didn’t have the time, missed the deadline or didn’t know how. Some of those who registered but didn’t vote said they didn’t have enough information about whom to vote for or how to vote.

The findings dovetail with a report released in June by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas that found a direct correlation between voter participation and voting barriers — such as limited hours for advance voting or fewer polling places on Election Day.

County-level officials could boost turnout statewide by more than 20,000 votes if they were to maximize early voting opportunities, the report found. Only 70 of the state's 105 counties provide the full 20-day window allowed under state law, and few keep offices open on Saturday and outside normal business hours.

"If there’s only one early voting day or it’s at a really inconvenient time or on the weekend, what kind of message is that sending to young voters about whether the officials and institutions actually want their participation?" Medina said.

The average number of voters per polling place also influenced voter turnout, the report found. The four counties with an average of less than than 500 voters assigned to a polling location had a turnout of 62.47%. In 11 counties with more than 3,000 voters per polling place, turnout fell below 40%.


Connie Brown Collins appears at a news conference at the Statehouse to protest new congressional maps
Connie Brown Collins appears at a January 2022 news conference at the Statehouse to protest gerrymandered congressional maps. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

'We're all jaded'

Connie Brown Collins told lawmakers in January 2022 they had awakened a sleeping lion by gerrymandering congressional districts to the detriment of voters in the northern half of Kansas City.

But 10 months later — after the Kansas Supreme Court determined the Legislature's right to manipulate voting districts is included in the state constitution — nearly two-thirds of registered voters in Wyandotte County slumbered through the November election, when turnout dropped 10.81 percentage points from 2018. Only four counties had worse turnout.

"We fought hard in the Statehouse, and of course our perspectives and opinions were not taken into account. The Legislature did not listen," Brown Collins said. "And after those court decisions came down, it kind of took the wind out of people’s sail. Folks were very disappointed."

Brown Collins, the director and founder of the Voter Rights Network of Wyandotte County, said she saw firsthand some of the problems highlighted in the ACLU report. At one polling place, she watched people look at the line, which stretched around the corner, and leave.

For young voters, she said, classes often interfere with their ability to cast an advance ballot because election offices close at 5 p.m.

She said young voters don't realize they power they have.

Once they "get on board," she said, they understand the effect they can have on the issues that are important to them.

"We're all jaded," Brown Collins said. "We've all been at it a long time. But that can't stop us. We're trying to make a difference. Sometimes we need to take a step back and regroup, but we need to come back strong because all of these issues, all the issues that we face today, will impact us, will impact our lives."

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.