A poll worker stands across the table from a voter inside a polling location, with ballot machines in the background.
A voter speaks with a poll worker at Argentine Community Center in Kansas City, Kansas, on Aug. 1, 2023. Along with expanded voting opportunities, like more early voting hours and election-day polling locations, bigger election budgets may increase voter turnout. (Danielle Randle/The Beacon)

Elections cost money. For ballots, voting machines, poll workers, tabulation equipment. Then there’s the money for polling places in churches or recreation centers or schools.

Between 2018 and 2022, the 105 county clerks and election commissioners across Kansas spent a combined $4.4 million — or 25% — more on elections than four years earlier.

Yet Kansas voter turnout dropped five percentage points between those two nonpresidential election years. 

A county-by-county examination by The Beacon showed counties that spent more per voter got some payoff on turnout — with limits. Counties that spent less than $20 per registered voter tended to see turnout of about 40%. Those that spent more than $30 per voter could generally expect turnout north of 50%. 

Experts say the way counties spend their money matters, even if the best use of that money to boost turnout can prove elusive.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas issued a report noting wide discrepancies in how Kansas counties manage elections. 

The implications of the ACLU’s findings suggest that democracy gets shortchanged in counties that don’t spend more, or more wisely.

The ACLU report recommends that counties line up more ways to vote before Election Day and that they open up more places to cast ballots. 

Counties with the longest advance voting periods, the group concluded, saw significantly higher turnout. It found higher Kansas voter turnout when polling places stayed open for longer hours. It found a payoff in adding voting locations both before an election and on Election Day. It also concluded that the least crowded polling places — those assigned to the fewest registered voters — did dramatically better than those with long lines.

How should Kansas counties spend election money?

Of the ACLU’s policy recommendations, the most powerful solution — adding more polling locations on Election Day — may also cost the most. ACLU spokesperson Esmie Tseng said extending hours during early voting, like staying open until 7 p.m. instead of 5 p.m., might be cheaper than opening more polling places.

Establishing minimum standards for election administration might help, said Zach Mohr, professor of public affairs and administration at the University of Kansas. 

“Everybody’s being informed, everybody knows where to go to vote, how to register to vote, all those things to make sure that everyone is getting a fair level of service,” he said.

Defining standards is one thing, but paying for them is another, Mohr said. 

“There’s a whole lot of problems in defining what is a standard level of service,” Mohr said. “And then, how do you fund it?”

What influences Kansas voter turnout?

Experts see consensus that larger election budgets tend to drive turnout, but much remains unknown about how best to spend that money and how reliably money can translate to the casting of more ballots.

Counties that spent more per voter in 2022 saw turnout shrink compared to 2018. But the counties that budgeted more generally saw higher turnout compared to places that spent less.

Voter turnout was down about 1% nationwide in 2022 compared to 2018, according to a report from The Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. The 2018 vote fell in the middle of then-President Donald Trump’s term when Republicans lost 40 seats in the U.S. House.

In 2022, inflation could have watered down the impact of extra spending, Tseng said. Consumer prices rose 18% from 2018 to 2022 — and those rising prices could have pushed up election costs like ballot printing, postage and signage.

And politics matter. The overturning of Roe v. Wade brought out Kansas voters in record numbers during the 2022 midterm to vote on a state constitutional amendment that could have paved the way for a state abortion ban.

Tseng also said spending and turnout vary widely across Kansas counties because each one has different needs. 

“We know that most of the bigger counties have bigger budgets,” Tseng said. “But the turnout does not necessarily correlate with those budgets. Bigger counties don’t necessarily have more voters per poll, and smaller counties don’t necessarily have fewer (early voting) hours.”

Decentralized election decisions

Each Kansas county sets its own policies for how elections are run, with decisions around early voting and Election Day polling locations left to each election commissioner or county clerk. 

In all but four Kansas counties, a locally elected county clerk runs the elections. In the state’s most populous counties — Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte — election commissioners are appointed by the secretary of state.

Election spending decisions are similarly decentralized, with budgets decided locally by each county’s commission. With very few exceptions — like next year’s presidential primary scheduled for March 19 — elections are funded by county taxpayers.

Nationwide, more than 8,000 election jurisdictions make election spending decisions, Mohr said. 

In a recent video message on social media, Micah Kubic, the executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, encouraged voters to lobby their individual county governments to expand voting opportunities. 

What drives election spending decisions?

Mohr said spending varies from one county to the next because some places simply have more money to spend.

“One county may have very different levels of resources relative to another county that may not have as big a property tax base or as much sales tax,” he said. “They may have higher spending levels for things like education, and other things that compete with elections.”

Ahead of the 2024 election, Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Laura Rainwater said her office requested the county spend more to prevent some of the problems the ACLU report identified. 

“It’s a very costly undertaking, so when you have three major elections in one year that obviously requires more funding,” Rainwater said. “We requested funding to do advanced vote-by-mail applications to all voters to help reduce lines on Election Day at our polling sites.” 

The request comes after a precipitous drop in early mail voting last year when the Sedgwick County Commission eliminated the automatic mailing of advance ballots, citing the cost. 

Rainwater has asked for money to add at least 15 new polling sites for 2024.

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Miranda Moore covers the Kansas Statehouse and state government for The Wichita Beacon.