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Higher Voter Turnout In Kansas And Missouri Might Be One Side Effect Of The Coronavirus

Brandon Sims stands in his office at the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime. He says he has seen more campaign activities move to social media.
Frank Morris
KCUR 89.3
Brandon Sims stands in his office at the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime. He says he has seen more campaign activities move to social media.

In this strange election year, candidates haven’t been out knocking on doors, riding in parades or kissing babies. Even without these typical campaign activities, many are expecting more people to vote in the August 4 primaries.

With schedules scrambled and plans on hold, it can be easy to lose track of time and even forget there is an election around the corner—unless you watch local TV in Kansas. Viewers across the state have been bombarded for weeks with political ads, cutting down or building up primary candidates for the U.S. Senate.

“I’m arguing that this is unprecedented,” proclaims Bob Beatty, who teaches political science at Washburn University. “That this is the highest number, most number of ads for a primary that we've seen in the state of Kansas. It is really something.”

Republican candidates are flooding the airwaves; one Senate candidate has run 14 separate spots. The presumptive Democratic nominee in the race has five television ads running. Beatty says this is partly because the pandemic has many voters stuck at home.

“There's just more eyeballs there to watch these ads and in some senses in a sense that the captive audience,” says Beatty.

Beatty says an ad barrage like the one this year in Kansas should goose voter interest. Something sure seems to be.

Katie Koupal Deputy Assistant Kansas Secretary of State office says more than 272,000 Kansans have already requested mail-in ballots, almost 8 times more than ever before.

“That is a very good indicator that voters are engaged and they are looking forward to making their voice, heard this primary election,” says Koupal.

Koupal says voter registration is also up by about 10,000 from two years ago. Both the Kansas House and Senate also are up for election this year with some of those races generating heated primaries.

Missouri’s a different situation. The biggest decision on the primary ballot is whether or not to expand Medicaid coverage. Jake Haselswerdt, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, notes there is hardly a sign of the campaign on TV so far, just one ad, that’s easiest to view online.

This is due in part to scheduling. The date for the Medicaid expansion vote was set at the end of May, so there hasn’t been much time to mount ad campaigns. Haselswerdt says the other big factor is the pandemic.

“When you're busy trying to hold your life together, that's less energy, fewer resources that you have to devote to something like politics, which is, you know, a bit more of a distant concern,” says Haselswerdt, citing his own research.

Still, one form of political engagement has been very visible--protests. Thousands of people marched in Kansas City and across the country for hours, day after day, this spring following the death of George Floyd.

Recent elections in Georgia, Kentucky and Wisconsin have drawn good turnout. Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft predicts that about 40% of registered voters will turn out for the August 4th primary.

“I'm really hopeful that because of the ability for people to vote in person, to request an absentee ballot or to have a mail-in ballot mailed to them, we will actually see greater participation than we've seen,” says Ashcroft.

But if Missouri’s election draws a better than average turnout, it will be commitment, not convenience, boosting the numbers.

Mark Chubb, from Kansas City, Missouri, is voting by mail for the first time this year because he doesn’t want to risk contributing to the spread of coronavirus at the polls. Chubb pays his taxes online, so he was surprised to learn that he couldn’t request a mail-in ballot the same way.

“You have to like print it out, sign it, and then you have to stamp it, put it in an envelope and mail it, just to get to that point,” says Chubb

Chubb says he spent at least an hour just preparing the application to vote by mail. The actual ballot has to be notarized, and of course, mailed. Voting by mail in Missouri isn’t easy, but it’s another option for dedicated voters.

“I would put on a hazmat suit and go in person if I had to. It's that important to me, especially in this election, to make sure that my vote counted,” says Chubb.

So even without cheering crowds, politicians kissing babies, or campaign workers going door to door, the August primary is likely to generate a lot of votes.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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