Heading into a presidential election year that includes the first Kansas presidential primaries since 1992, the Sedgwick County Election Office will spend more than it has in at least 10 years.
The election office will get $3.5 million in 2024 under a budget recently adopted by the Sedgwick County Commission. But a request to send mail-in ballot applications to all registered voters got rejected.
Election Commissioner Laura Rainwater said she made the spending hike her top priority to cut voter wait times at the polls and address staff burnout. She took over following a period of turnover and controversy. She is the third person to hold the office since 2020.
“I don’t want anyone to have to stand in line more than 15 minutes,” she said.
A recent analysis by The Wichita Beacon found some correlation to an increase in voter turnout when counties spent more on elections.
In the 2022 and 2018 elections, Sedgwick County — the state’s second largest county — spent about $6 per registered voter on elections. More populous Johnson County spent $10 per registered voter. Johnson County’s voter turnout was higher — 62% in 2018 and 57% in 2022. Sedgwick County voter turnout was 56% in 2018 and 47% in 2022.
The Sedgwick County funding boost includes about $445,000 to pay for presidential primaries on March 19, 2024 — a cost the Kansas Legislature agreed to cover with state money. The election budget also includes roughly $900,000 for contractual services — things like software upgrades, ballot printing, voting equipment maintenance and truck rental services.
“Going into the budget process, my top priority was staffing,” Rainwater said. “The election office has been understaffed for many years, which had resulted in burnout and high turnover.”
She said the problem would likely become more acute in a presidential election year.
Rainwater asked for the equivalent of seven additional full-time employees. Commissioners agreed to fund three at a cost of about $210,000.
No money for mass mailing of applications for mail-in ballots
The County Commission declined to spend $120,000 to send all registered voters applications for mail-in advance ballots. Those applications had been mailed in every presidential and midterm election since 2008.
That practice stopped without notice to voters in 2022, leading to criticism from the League of Women Voters and others who speculated it reduced voter participation, particularly among elderly and disabled voters. Rainwater said typically 50,000 voters would return the applications.
Rainwater asked the commission to reinstate the mailings in 2024, but the commission opted to instead spend $63,700 on general information postcards to about 200,000 households. The postcards will include early voting center locations and hours, as well as information about how to request advance mail ballot applications online.
The $18,500 of the savings was reallocated to add 15 additional polling sites, doubling the number Rainwater had requested to 30.
“The ultimate goal is to reduce lines on Election Day,” Rainwater said.
Whether that compromise increases turnout depends on where the additional polling places are located, said Russell Arben Fox, a political science professor at Friends University.
“If you’re not seeing additional polling sites and additional staff in low-income areas, around college campuses and in predominantly non-white neighborhoods, then it will be very easy to read a clear partisan and class-based motivation behind this decision,” he said in an email. Mailing advance-ballot applications across the country and in Kansas has been shown to boost voting by younger, poorer and nonwhite voters, he said.
|Year||Election Budget||Total Voters |
|2024||$3,526,170||Not held yet||Presidential|
|2023||$1,971,114||Not held yet||Local offices|
|2017||$2,419,137*||24,127||8%||Local (No mayoral race)|
The Wichita Beacon’s statehouse reporter Miranda Moore contributed to this report.
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