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Historic voter turnout in the Aug. 2 primary surprised even the state’s chief election officer. Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab announced four days before the election that he predicted a 36% voter turnout, or around 700,000 voters.
Historically, midterm primaries draw 20% to 25% of voters. Schwab’s prediction padded that number by about 50% to account for voter interest in a constitutional amendment that, if it had passed, would have nullified a state Supreme Court decision that says the Kansas Constitution contains the right to an abortion.
Instead, more than 922,000 Kansans — just over 47% of the state’s more than 1,950,000 voters — turned out to vote down the amendment. Voters rejected the amendment by a 59%-41% margin, preliminary results show.
That means actual turnout was double what has been seen in past midterm primaries, and more in line with a November election.
“It’s looking a lot like the 2008 turnout for the Obama presidential race… incredibly high turnout,” Schwab said during an election night call with members of the press. “There’s a lot of voter engagement participation, which we think is a good thing.”
The two most probable explanations for August’s record voter turnout: at least 180,000 likely independent voters who do not usually vote in primary elections, and the U.S. Supreme Court rescinding federal constitutional protections for abortion less than six weeks before abortion appeared on the ballot in Kansas.
The confluence of factors made the August 2022 election historic and with little precedent for election leaders to draw from. But some early indicators, like voter registration numbers in advance of the election, hinted that this election would be unique.
Using voter registration to predict voter turnout
Voter registration numbers are a good barometer of voter engagement and interest in an election, according to county election commissioners and the secretary of state, and are often used when predicting voter turnout.
Insights can be gleaned from understanding trends in who registers, and when.
For example, 70% of new Kansas voter registrations after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade were women, according to TargetSmart, a Democratic-party aligned political consulting firm based out of Washington, D.C. This demographic detail shows that abortion rights motivated voter engagement, wrote Tom Bonier, TargetSmart’s chief executive, in an analysis of Kansas voter registration data.
When broken down to daily registration, the numbers may also tell us with more granularity if specific events are correlated with increased voter interest.
The Kansas secretary of state’s office does not publish daily voter registration numbers on its website. But KSVotes.org does, and they have tracked daily voter registrations on their site every day since they launched in August 2018.
KSVotes.org is not an official voter registration service provided by the state government. Instead, think of them as a sort of ongoing online voter registration drive run by voting rights advocates. Their data only accounts for voters who registered using the KSVotes.org website, and does not include any voters who registered through official channels like their county election office or the secretary of state’s website. Nor can the data show historical patterns over time, since it only keeps data from when it launched in 2018. It is also unknown to what degree the voters who register using the site may skew in any particular demographic or ideological direction.
So, KSVotes.org data cannot be used as a complete and definitive snapshot of voter registration numbers statewide, but it can show trends and patterns.
For example, KSVotes.org showed a spike on Sept. 25, 2018, National Voter Registration Day. Another spike happened on Sept. 22, 2020, when Senate Republicans and President Donald Trump announced plans to fill a Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg six weeks ahead of the November general election.
Similarly, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision to overturn Roe v. Wade just 40 days before the abortion amendment appeared on the ballots on Aug. 2 — and 19 days before the voter registration deadline — voter registration on KSVotes.org spiked. But this time voter registrations remained unusually high through the registration deadline.
Voter registration surged after Roe v. Wade overturned
The Kansas abortion amendment ballot question was years in the making. It started in 2019 when lawmakers began deliberating a response to the state Supreme Court’s ruling.
It was ultimately a coincidence that the timeline put forth by state lawmakers — who chose to put the amendment on the August midterm primary because of its usually low voter turnout — triggered the opposite. The move inadvertently made Kansas the first state in the country to put abortion to a public vote after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe, drawing unprecedented attention to the election.
In the four years KSVotes.org has tracked daily voter registrations, more people registered to vote on KSVotes.org on June 24, 2022 — the day the court issued its decision to overturn Roe — than on any other day that wasn’t within two days of a voter registration deadline.
During the 19 days between the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe and the primary voter registration deadline on July 12, nearly 12,000 voters registered using KSVotes.org. That’s about three times as many as during the same period in the 2020 primary election cycle.
On most days prior to the Supreme Court decision, registration ahead of the 2022 primary was lower than in the 2020 primary cycle. But after Roe was overturned, voter registration rates more closely resembled the 2018 November general election registration cycle than they did the 2020 primary cycle.
Usually, more than three times as many voters register in the final 19 days before the deadline than do earlier, creating a glut of registrations at the very end of the registration cycle. But in 2022, voter registrations on KSvotes.org jumped to nearly 15 times what they were before Roe was overturned.
How voter turnout predictions help election offices prepare
The secretary of state’s office makes its prediction on voter turnout, and individual counties make their own.
Failure to adequately predict voter turnout has consequences. It affects whether counties have adequate polling places, poll workers and ballots. Low estimates can produce long wait times for voters. High estimates can cost counties more money than they needed to spend.
“The forecast number is developed internally at the staff level, based on past elections and other factors, and it is used only for allocation of resources and planning for the election,” said Fred Sherman, Johnson County election commissioner. In Wyandotte and Johnson counties, predictions were closer to actual turnout than the state’s estimate.
Michael Abbott, Wyandotte County election commissioner, said his office predicts turnout based on precinct-level turnout in previous elections, as well as current voter registration numbers.
“We estimated between 35 and 45% voter turnout,” Abbott said. Actual turnout was just over 36% in the August election.
Abbott’s office purposefully overestimates voter turnout, he said, which may end up with surplus supplies that aren’t used, but that overpreparing is far preferable to the alternative. “We always have to guess a little high simply because we do not ever want to be in a position where we do not have enough ballots,” Abbott said.
In Johnson County, officials also predicted high, anticipating a 65% overall turnout. Sherman said actual voter turnout was around 56%. But he underestimated election day voting, which impacted the voter experience at some polling locations.
“I had projected that with a 65% total turnout rate that 50% of that would be for advance in-person voting, 15% would be by mail and 35% would be election day in-person voting,” Sherman said. “Election day voting was higher than forecasted. We needed additional election workers to better accommodate the election day voting numbers experienced in Johnson County on Aug. 2.”
Sherman said that for the November general election, he expects advance voting to outpace election day voting.
Voter turnout predictions do not capture everything that may impact a voter’s experience. In Sedgwick County, election commissioner Angela Caudillo said that her office planned for more turnout than they saw, but still had polling sites with lines that had voters waiting three hours or more.
“Based on our planning, we believed we were sending out resources to accommodate a 55 to 65% turnout,” Caudillo said. Sedgwick County had an overall voter turnout rate of just over 45% in the August primary.
“It is possible that the resources were sufficient, but the sites were not large enough,” she said.