The number of registered voters in Kansas has risen by more than 40,000 since the 2012 presidential election, according the Secretary of State’s office. But it’s a different story in Wyandotte County. Even though the population of the big county in the Kansas City metro is growing, voter registrations are down by around 4,000 from four years ago.
In the days before the Oct. 18 registration deadline, a few volunteers were working to change that. They had unfolded a table in front of a Dollar Tree store to register voters in Kansas City, Kansas.
Leonard Stallings has been active for the last few presidential elections. He says one challenge at voter registration events is the state law requiring people registering for the first time to provide a citizenship document.
“It’s just an additional obstacle they have to go through in order to vote. Especially in the African American community, they feel like they’re just trying to stop us from voting,” says Stallings.
The law means registering can often be a two-step process. It’s left to workers like Jake Miller to follow up about the documents.
1. Population churn
Miller is a Wyandotte County native who now works with the Democratic Party. He says people in the area move a lot and don’t always have a passport or a copy of their birth certificate.
“It’s a growing county. But if they’re poor or they’ve come from a hardship, then they don’t usually have that documentation with them, and so it’s much harder for us to go back and find those,” says Miller.
Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach doesn’t agree that the proof-of-citizenship rules are getting in the way of voter registration in Wyandotte. In fact, he says people are now registering at a faster rate.
“The number of new registrations is up after our proof-of-citizenship law has been in effect, not down,” says Kobach.
Overall voter registration numbers have gone down, Kobach says, because county officials have been very good about clearing out old registrations when people move away.
“The decreased number of people on the voter registration list in Wyandotte County is entirely due to the fact that people have moved away from Wyandotte County,” says Kobach.
So whether the proof-of-citizenship rule is complicating it or not, one factor affecting voting here is that population churn.
2. Unfamiliarity with voting
The population is also very diverse and some of the newcomers simply do not know how to vote.
“Maybe in their families they will be the first generation to vote. Maybe they are the only ones who are citizens,” says Cielo Fernandez, with the group El Centro, which provides services targeted at the Latino community.
Fernandez says many Latinos know the value of their citizenship documents, so they keep them handy and can get registered. But she says for many, voting is not a familiar process.
“That conversation hasn’t happened at home, the conversation about how once you turn 18 you’ll be ready to vote because in mixed-status families that’s not a conversation,” says Fernandez.
3. Boring elections
Wyandotte County Election Commissioner Bruce Newby points to another factor, interest in the election.
“I think it’s an ebb and flow, I honestly do,” says Newby.
He says when voters are more interested in an election, the registration numbers go up. Newby also believes there have been fewer outreach efforts to voters in recent years.
“In the past, there have been campaigns and candidates doing quite a bit to get people registered to vote. The last presidential election four years ago and this one I have seen almost no activity,” says Newby.
Wyandotte County is one the few Democratic strongholds in Kansas. Candidates often go unopposed and there’s not much campaigning.
State Representative Valdenia Winn hasn’t had opposition since the 2006 primary. Winn is now also chair of the Wyandotte County Democratic Party.
She concedes the Democrats haven’t done enough to get people engaged. They’re trying to change that with on-the-ground efforts utilizing precinct captains and neighborhood groups to get people registered and voting.
“It has to be a grassroots movement that this is the only way you’re going to see crime reduced, jobs, schools, those things that impact your life directly. We’re going to have to just make it a top priority,” says Winn.
The tide may be turning.
Voter registrations are trending back upward and there was a jump in voter turnout for the primary elections this year. And a candidate for Congress, Democrat Jay Sidie, has been campaigning in the area in his challenge to Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder.
Stephen Koranda is a reporter for Kansas Public Radio, which is a partner in a statewide collaboration covering elections in Kansas this year. You can follow Stephen on Twitter @kprkoranda.