All Democracy is (Still) Local
The constitutional right to vote is at the heart of our democracy, and free and fair elections uphold our system of governance. Recently, there have been new and increased efforts to attack the foundations of our democracy and our ability to have our voices heard, including here in Kansas.
But democracy is not a partisan matter—rather, it’s the mechanism by which each of us take part in the decision-making process in our communities. Democracy is the space where we decide our collective values and hold one another accountable to those values. It is the framework that ensures each Kansas voter can have a voice in selecting those who will have the power to make decisions affecting their lives. This necessary accountability and far reaching impact are the fundamental reasons that every elected official should make it easier, not harder, for all eligible Kansans who want to vote.
Elections in the United States are among the most decentralized in the world. There is no uniform national standard for who is eligible to vote, when elections are held, how they are run, nor how easy or cumbersome it is for citizens to participate. This wild variation is found not only between states, but also between counties. Kansas has an especially decentralized system, with each county’s respective election official determining how to run elections and whether to proactively protect voting rights in their community.
In 2023, the ACLU of Kansas conducted a survey to ascertain not only how local policies and practices impact general participation and accessibility, but how some counties are going a step beyond the most basic election requirements to create truly accessible, equitable elections for their voters. This survey revealed that the wildly varied access to vote across the state found in 2018 remains, and it creates a reality that continues to directly impact voter participation in each county.
There was a clear inverse relationship between voters per poll and voter turnout, while early voting days and hours had some predictive impact on turnout. Notably, in the counties with the most lagging voter turnout numbers in the 2018 midterm elections, local election officials appear to not have taken those steps to address low turnout in the years since.
Without any change to current state law, county election officials are fully authorized to strengthen democracy in their own counties. This report finds that there are many opportunities for meaningful action to be taken:
- Increasing the early voting period and the actual number of days within the period: Counties that started their early voting period 20 days before Election Day, the maximum length allowed by statute, had significantly higher turnout—52.85%—compared to those with periods of 1-14 days, which saw an average of 49.52% turnout. However, even among the majority of counties that begin their early voting period 20 days before Election Day, there are only 14 actual days of early voting offered within that period. This report estimates that if all counties were to maximize the early voting period so that they were open 18 days (every day except Sunday), at least 20,803 additional Kansas voters could participate—a potential 2% increase of the current turnout rate, taking statewide voter turnout from 50.5% to 51.6%.
- Increasing early voting access outside of business hours: The overwhelming majority —80%—of Kansas’s counties provide exactly zero hours of early voting outside of Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The greatest impact of providing this kind of access was seen in counties that provided more than 20 hours outside of business hours, where turnout was 53.92%, higher than the state’s average.
- Increasing the number of early voting locations: Only 22 counties offered multiple early voting locations, with the majority instead reducing the convenience of early voting by requiring Kansans to drive to a further, singular location. Counties with five or more early voting locations saw an average turnout rate of 53.19%, well above the state average.
- Opening more Election Day locations for less crowded polls: Voters per Election Day polls had the highest overlap with higher turnout. Eighteen of the 20 counties with the most robust turnout rates in the state also had fewer voters per poll than the state’s average. The counties with the least number of voters assigned to each poll, 1 to 499 voters, had an average turnout rate of a whopping 62.47%, compared to turnout in the counties with over 4,000 voters per poll: 36.27%.
- Ensuring meaningful curbside voting at all polling locations: Not all Kansas counties appear to meet the election standard of requiring curbside voting availability. Even among the 90 counties that reported they do have some form of curbside voting available, very few have visible signage and some require calling ahead to arrange it in advance. Even in the cases that curbside voting is offered in theory, there is a troubling need for better voter information and for accountability on the ground at the actual poll.
- Informing voters of permanent advance voting status: Few Kansas counties inform voters of their ability to apply for permanent advance. Only nine counties indicated that they send out advance ballots proactively.
- Providing voting materials in languages other than English: Only four counties meet the federal threshold requiring voting materials in additional languages, but ten counties either provide some non-English voting materials or translation options, despite not meeting the federal threshold. However, Wyandotte, Johnson, and Sedgwick Counties, the state’s most populous counties that also happen to have the largest populations with limited English proficiency, do not provide voting materials in additional languages, despite having the largest populations of individuals with limited English proficiency.
- Establishing a vote-from-jail program: Even among the minority of counties reporting an official vote-from-jail program or a working relationship with their sheriff or their staff to ensure individuals can vote, the burden appears to be on the detained person to vote, rather than consisting of a proactive effort throughout the jail to include anyone who is eligible.
Policies expanding access to the vote have overwhelming support from everyday Kansans, according to a January 2023 survey conducted by the nationally renowned pollster Global Strategy Group for the ACLU of Kansas. Overall, Kansans across the political spectrum recognize voting rights are under attack, and they are calling on elected officials to make it easier to vote: 70% of Kansas voters strongly (51%) or somewhat (19%) agree that elected officials should focus on making it easier to vote in Kansas, not harder. That support is consistent for the specific policy changes recommended in this report.
Read the report below, and then sign up to expand your community's access to democracy here.