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Voter turnout is dismal in this corner of Kansas City, Kansas, and it's not because of apathy

Michael Pacheco, 74, doesn't vote. He feels government, at all levels, does nothing for him. He pays so much in taxes, he says, he worries he could lose his house. He's a vet but says he doesn't get services he needs from the Veteran's Administration.
Laura Ziegler
Michael Pacheco, 74, doesn't vote. He says government, at all levels, does nothing for him. He pays so much in taxes, he says, that he worries he could lose his house. He's a vet but says he doesn't get services he needs from the Veteran's Administration.

In last year’s election for mayor, county commission and other Wyandotte County races, 11 of the 337 people who were eligible voted in one section of the 2nd Precinct. But it wasn't because they don't care, as non-voters are often portrayed. They have reasons for staying home on Election Day.

The short block of Sandusky Avenue between 8th and 9th streets in Kansas City, Kansas, is a quiet, tree-lined street made narrow by cars parked on both sides and rows of closely spaced bungalows. Some are newly renovated with grassy front yards, plant-filled porches and comfy outdoor furniture. Others have boarded-up windows and crumbling stoops.

In the November 2023 municipal elections for mayor, Board of Public Utilities and county commissioners, voters in the 4th Ward of the 2nd Precinct, in which this block is located, cast Wyandotte County’s second fewest number of ballots: 11 out of 337 eligible people voted. That’s 3.26%.

KCUR went to Sandusky Avenue to knock on doors and find out why turnout was so low.

“Yeah, what can I do for you?” asked one man who cracked open his door under some tingling wind chimes on the wood porch of a house at the end of the block.

Asked about his voting habits, he was quick to reply.

“Mayor and all that, I don’t participate in that,” he said. He didn’t want to share his name and wasn’t interested in having a conversation. He said he typically voted for president, but never in a local election.

“Because we get the same assholes we did before. Thank you,” he said, slamming the door shut.

Historically, roughly half of the eligible voting population sits out national elections, and turnout is much lower in local elections. Historically, studies have identified non-voters as less well educated and poorer than people who regularly vote. More recent research reveals the reasons people sit out elections is much more complicated and nuanced.

Why should I vote?

Michael Pacheco, 74, is a burly man with a thick head of black hair and a salt and pepper beard. He was wearing a worn, Browning firearms T-shirt with a big bunch of keys jingling from his belt.

Cats wandered up to the porch of his house where he’d laid out several small bowls of food and water. Two ferocious-sounding dogs bolted out of their dog houses, pulling on chains tied to one of the big shade trees at the back of the house.

“Come on in,” Pacheco belted out amicably to a visiting reporter, swinging the front door open into an unfinished entry hall. Some of the drywall was gone, exposing insulation. Aluminum covered some of the upstairs windows.

Pacheco said he’d been in this house for 25 years and that it’s grown harder and harder to maintain it. His appeals for help from officials, at all levels of government, have not yielded any results.

“What are they doing? They have showed me nothing,” he said, louder and more exasperated with each sentence. "I’m still poor. I’m getting taxed with no money to pay the taxes. Bought this house. Arm and a leg I paid for it. Three loans. I finally got it and now I’m trying to keep it.”

“In fact, I’m a veteran. They say they help veterans. I ain’t found anybody to help me worth a poop. I have bills up the yang yang. Personal property taxes, other taxes for the city, the mayor’s new car taxes, taxes for everything.”

Pacheco has retreated from any form of political engagement. He sees no purpose in voting. He said he doesn’t watch the news or pay attention to current events. He said he’s grateful for his Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security because it lets him take care of his wife and three girls, but he still feels the system is rigged against him.

His issue is guns. He’s a fierce Second Amendment advocate, but not in an activist way, just in an “I’ll-defend my family-and-home-if-necessary” way.

Pacheco has a jolly side, shows affection for his wife and chauffeurs his daughter to her bakery job in Leawood, Kansas. But there’s no mistaking he also simmers with rage.

“In fact, I’m a veteran. They say they help veterans,” he said. “I ain’t found anybody to help me worth a poop. I have bills up the yang yang. Personal property taxes, other taxes for the city, the mayor’s new car taxes, taxes for everything.”

Changing assumptions

Statistics show that non-voters as a demographic are disproportionately white, lower income and less well educated than voters, but recent research has dispelled other assumptions — that they are ignorant, disengaged or apathetic.

Averial Jacobs, 62, said she is frustrated most of the residents on Sandusky Avenue don't vote. She views it as a privilege and the only way to hold elected officials accountable.

In a 2020 report based on a survey of 12,000 "chronic nonvoters" nationally and in swing states, the Knight Foundation found that more than a third lacked confidence that elections reflect the will of the people; nonvoters are twice as likely as voters to “passively encounter news” and say they lack enough information about elections to vote; nonvoters are less partisan, more evenly divided on key issues and, if they all voted in 2020, would add “an almost equal share of votes to Republican and Democratic candidates.”

Jan Leighley , a professor of government at American University who studies political behavior, turnout and election laws, said it’s a common misconception that rallying nonvoters to the polls would significantly sway elections.

“The big question is whether voters and nonvoters have different preferences or would benefit from different policies,” she said. Nonvoters are not monolithic, she said, and with roughly half of eligible voters voting, there’s ample room for interpretation of the data.

“There is some belief that a higher level of different kinds of people voting, a different composition of the electorate, would lead to a different outcome,” she said.

A voice for voting

Sandusky Avenue does have its voters.

Esmeralda Zapata, who will turn 20 in July, said she’s not a “politics person,” but feels an obligation to make her voice heard. She said she follows the news mostly online, but knows many of her older neighbors aren’t good with technology. She said she's baffled why more people don't vote.

“Good question,” she said. “I guess more education. Rather than just a registration card in the mail, maybe a booklet that tells you who is running for office, who they are and what they do, rather than making people look it up.”

A woman in a green T-shirt stands in front of a small house with her hands resting on a brown picket fence
Laura Ziegler
Esmerelda Zapata, 19, will vote in her first national election this year. She said she doesn't follow politics a lot, but as a community organizer, knows it's important to express her values through voting.

Serina Chavez, 28, lives with her husband and two children two doors down from Zapata. She got one of those small voter registration cards in the mail a few weeks ago. As she flipped through a thick stack of advertisements, bills and fliers, she pulled out a small postcard with information about where and how to register before the July 16 deadline to vote in the August primary.

“It never occurred to me to pay attention to it,” she said. “I really can only think about providing for my kids and my family.”

She said she doesn’t consume any news and is too busy with day-to-day responsibilities to follow elections.

“It’s just so hard,” she said. “I know I’m one of the lucky ones, too. I get to stay home with my kids and my husband has a good job. But, like going to the grocery store. It’s crazy. $100 used to buy several bags of groceries. Now, maybe just two.”

Her mother does vote, but Serina stopped voting after she started a family. Now, politics isn’t anywhere on her radar. She said she didn’t know who was running against Joe Biden. But when asked about issues, she got animated. Her son has autism and she said she’s grateful his public school provides services for special needs kids. She said she also worries about gun violence every time she sends him off to school, given the frequency of school shootings. But she sees no point in getting politically engaged.

“Nothing ever changes,” she said. “Look at all this gun violence. School shootings. They just keep happening. Does it matter if I vote?”

She said she would try to register. “I don’t know,” she said. “If I have time, maybe.”

Serina Chavez, 28, doesn't vote because elections are not a priority when she is trying to raise her family and make ends meet as prices for everything rise.
Laura Ziegler
Serina Chavez, 28, said she doesn't vote because elections are not a priority when she is trying to raise her family and make ends meet as prices rise for everything.

This attitude frustrates Averial Jacobs, a 62-year-old former Army truck driver. She has lived on Sandusky Avenue for 22 years, and people there call her the “block mama.” She knows everyone, takes food to neighbors in need and calls on them when it’s very hot or cold.

One recent day, high school kids on a mission trip from Indiana were helping clean up her yard and home, nailing down the wood on her steps and mowing her lawn.

Jacobs sees her neighbors struggle and can understand why most of them don’t vote.

“Individuals have been lied to, deceived and promised things that didn’t happen,” she said. “It creates a problem with hope, faith and trust.”

Don Haider-Markel, a professor of political science at the University of Kansas whose research focuses on how groups are represented in politics and policy, and how public opinion and policy relate to political behavior, said politics have become so nationalized that state and local elections are barely noticed. What he calls the “low information voter” often doesn’t even know these elections are occurring.

“I think it’s partly on the media who doesn’t cover these (local and state) elections, but it’s also on the campaigns,” Haider-Markel said. “These candidates don’t knock doors in these communities, don’t come out.”

Leighley, of American University, adds that elected officials — from their early campaigns and throughout their terms — cater to wealthier, more engaged communities because they’re more likely to vote. This pattern of disengagement, she said, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for nonvoters.

“When the gentlemen who doesn’t vote in any election says it doesn’t matter, maybe he’s looking at the potholes that never get fixed in his neighborhood,” Leighley said.

Jacobs’ concern is that the hostile rhetoric and violence attached to politics today has made people afraid to go to the polls.

"I think everyone should get out and vote. Your voice does count, even though it seems like it doesn't,” she said.

Jacobs said she doesn’t wait for elected officials to come to her. She seeks them out when they come to her church or community center.

Now, her state representative sends her a birthday card every year.

“Keep bringing your chair to the table,” she said. “If you have to bring the table, bring the table too. Sometimes you have to bring your own stuff to let them know you’re paying attention.”

I partner with communities to uncover the ignored or misrepresented stories by listening and letting communities help identify and shape a narrative. My work brings new voices, sounds, and an authentic sense of place to our coverage of the Kansas City region. My goal is to tell stories on the radio, online, on social media and through face to face conversations that enhance civic dialogue and provide solutions.
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