Supervising Judge Margie Adair organizes requests for advance ballots at the Sedgwick County Election Office on Oct. 20. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

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At Riverside Christian Church on the morning of Nov. 2, the line to vote stretched almost out the door. The parking lot buzzed with cars bringing voters to exercise their civic duty. 

On the ballot: not a president, state representatives or senators, nor even a mayor. Just three Wichita City Council races and four Wichita Board of Education contests.

“(Local elections) are the ones that hit my pavement when I walk out the door,” said Michael Jensen, a Riverside resident who was in line to vote. “It’s not issues that are on my Twitter feed or that are fed to me from somewhere.”

Jensen was among a surge of residents helping push turnout to the highest levels for a non-mayoral Wichita election since 2005 — when a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex couples from marrying was on the ballot. The 15% turnout in 2021 nearly doubled the 8% turnout in 2017, significantly topped the 6% in 2013 and also outpaced the 9% total in 2009.

These years — 2017, 2013 and 2009 — were the last in which the District 1, 3 and 6 seats were up for election at the same time as four at-large posts on the Wichita school board. 

What’s behind the increase in Wichita’s voter turnout?

While the Sedgwick County Election Office was prepared for up to 30% turnout, officials were expecting much less, according to Election Commissioner Angela Caudillo. 

“We try and pick a number to prepare for, and usually that number is probably above what we think the likely scenario is,” Caudillo said. 

But Caudillo said she was not sure why turnout jumped compared with 2017. 

Russell Arben Fox, a political science professor at Friends University, pointed to increased polarization across the country as a contributor.  

“The parties have become more polarized, and that activates more voters to declare themselves one way or another,” Arben Fox said. “That boils down even to local elections.”

Locally, that meant City Council and school board candidates — running for offices that are officially nonpartisan — affiliated themselves with national political parties, Arben Fox said.

“Because of these things going on nationally, local political operatives … see opportunities to motivate voters,” Arben Fox said. “As voters themselves have become more partisan and more polarized, they take a look at elections and they look for party cues.”

The Sedgwick County Republican Party endorsed four candidates for the Wichita school board — three of whom won. One of the four, Diane Albert, paid the organization $2,300 for mailers. The Sedgwick County Democratic Party also endorsed five candidates in USD 259 races, none of whom won. 

In the City Council races, the county Democratic Party endorsed three candidates, all of whom won, while the county Republican Party endorsed two. Sedgwick County Democratic Women and Sedgwick County Grassroots Democrats also donated to two of the candidates. Plus, two candidates worked with the Ad Astra Group, whose managing member, Casey Yingling, is a former secretary of the Kansas Democratic Party.

Arben Fox pointed to partisan-tinted issues that took center stage prior to the election, including passage of the nondiscrimination ordinance by the City Council in October.

But Brian Amos, an assistant professor in Wichita State University’s political science department, said City Council races were more competitive in 2021 than in past years. Candidates spent $145,956 leading up to this year’s general election, which is about $120,875 more than in 2017. Exceptionally high voter turnout in 2020 also could have led to this year’s increase in turnout, Amos added.

“People who are likely to turn out are ones who have come out before,” Amos said. 

Absentee and early ballots made up a significant portion of votes cast in the City Council races, perhaps a carryover from the push to vote absentee or early during the pandemic in 2020, Arben Fox said. In District 3, the number of early and absentee ballots in 2021 made up 79% of the total number of ballots cast in the 2017 election. And in District 6, at least 40% of all votes were early or absentee ballots. 

“That’s huge,” Arben Fox said. “Wichitans, like Americans in general, are embracing early voting and taking more seriously mail-in ballots, and this is increasing overall voter turnout.”

Turnout differs across City Council districts

There was no line out the door to vote at the First United Pentecostal church in District 3 around noon on Nov. 2. The parking lot sat mostly quiet.

John Ellis, supervising judge at the site, said turnout this year felt a little bit slower than in the local elections he’s worked over his past seven years as a poll worker. It’s also his first time at the 310th Precinct, which saw one of the lowest turnouts among precincts in Districts 1, 3 and 6 in 2017, 2013 and 2009. 

Riverside Christian Church, the polling place for the 607th Precinct in District 6, saw one of the highest. 

These two polling sites mimic a larger trend in Wichita’s off-year non-mayoral elections: consistently higher voter turnout in District 6 than in District 3. 

Arben Fox and Amos both cited income and education as factors behind the discrepancy. Arben Fox said District 3 has higher unemployment levels and lower education levels. Amos said District 6 has a higher median income.

“Wealth usually means more people with more time to volunteer,” Arben Fox said. 

Richard Ruth, a member of the District 3 advisory board, said lack of turnout in his district may be influenced by the perception of local government.

“That’s one of the problems: the perception that the city is not meeting the needs of the people in District 3,” Ruth said.

This year, though, turnout surged in both Districts 3 and 6. Amos pointed out that these districts had the most competitive races — candidates in Districts 3 and 6 came within 3 and 10 percentage points of each other, respectively. By contrast, the winner in District 1 had a 58 percentage point lead. 

In 2017, all three City Council races had a difference of at least 30 percentage points between candidates.

But Caudillo also pointed out that candidates in District 3 and 6 races sent campaign mailers with vote-by-mail applications. 

“If candidates in those two areas did that, then you might see an increase in turnout,” Caudillo said.

District 3 City Council member Jared Cerullo confirmed that he sent a mailer with vote-by-mail applications. Cerullo lost to Mike Hoheisel by about 3 percentage points — 50% to 47%, according to unofficial results from the Sedgwick County Election Office.

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.