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Yes, There Are A Lot Of Early Voters In Kansas, But What Does That Mean?

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Kansas counties are on pace to set new early voting records in 2016.

If you think there seems to be a lot of early voters this year, you're right. 

In the first week or so of advanced in-person voting, Kansas counties in the metro area are experiencing numbers that suggest records could be broken. 

"I never thought we'd surpass 2008," says Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew. 

That year, when Barack Obama beat John McCain, many precincts across the nation saw historic overall turnout. But this year, Shew and others suspect new early voting benchmarks could be set. 

Through three days of early voting, 32,657 voters cast ballots in person in Johnson County. That's more than eight percent of all registered voters and a jump from 2008's total of 19,395 at the same point in that year's election. 

"It's definitely significant, I'll say that," says Nathan Carter, the county's elections office administrator. 

Douglas County had processed 3,328 in-person ballots by Wednesday night. That's compared to 1,875 at the same point in 2008. In Leavenworth County, the number Thursday morning was 4,029, compared to a total for the entire 2008 general election cycle of 5,846.

In Wyandotte County, voters had cast 3,223 early votes in person. In Miami County the total was 1,330. Neither of those counties, however, had yet provided historical advanced voting data for comparison. 

But what does it mean?

Election experts would caution against making any firm conclusions from this data. 

"It's interesting as an indicator of enthusiasm, but don't necessarily stick your neck out and make an Election Day prediction," says KU political science professor Patrick Miller. 

As an example, Miller highlights 2014. That year, Democratic challenger Paul Davis won early voting in Johnson County as he tried to unseat incumbent Republican governor Sam Brownback. But Brownback won Election Day and was reelected. 

"Increasingly, we see early voting that does not reflect the Election Day vote," Miller says. "Reading too much into early voting numbers is a dangerous venture."

Why early voting is up this year

Partisans of either side may find it tempting to tout early turnout as evidence of their candidate's impending victory. Miller, though, has other theories. 

First, this year--as we've been told ad nauseam--is different. But really, he says, that may be driving early voting. 

"Think about it, we've had nearly two years of really negative campaigning. It's been really long, and maybe voters have some extra enthusiasm to get to the poll, get it over with, and put this past them," he says. 

Also, campaigns at all levels are now pushing early voter turnout. There's plenty of evidence of this, from Iowa to North Carolina, of campaign staffers pushing people to vote early. 

"They want to mobilize those hard-core voters early, get that support out there, so they can focus their efforts closer to Election Day on the swing voters," Miller says. 

And finally, early voting is simply getting easier. States are expanding early voting dates, adding polling places, and publicizing it more. These efforts have worked. News stats site Five Thirty-Eight says, generally speaking, early voting has been steadily going up since 2000

Johnson County could be an outlier

Still, Johnson County's eye-popping early vote total this week says something, right? 

Miller has a qualified 'yes.' 

"In Johnson County this year, you have several competitive statehouse races and a competitive Congressional race. Those campaigns are probably trying to turn people out and get them to the polls early," he says. 

But who's going to win? Like the candidates, we'll have to wait until Nov. 9. 

Kyle Palmer is KCUR's morning newscaster. You can follow him on Twitter@kcurkyle.

Kyle Palmer is the editor of the Shawnee Mission Post, a digital news outlet serving Northeast Johnson County, Kansas. He previously served as KCUR's news director and morning newscaster.
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