Kansas Communities Step Up to Increase Voter Registration, Turnout Amid Pandemic

Based on the 2020 primary election and COVID-19 limitations, the general election will look a little different this year. Kansans requested the greatest number of mail-in-ballots in history during the primary election, and at least two additional secure ballot drop boxes have been placed throughout each county in an effort to limit public health risks and encourage voting during the pandemic.

While certain precautions should be taken if voting in person – like washing or sanitizing your hands before and after you vote, wearing a face mask and staying six feet apart from people nearest you in line – the pandemic is no reason to avoid doing your civic duty to impact healthier communities.

A couple important general election dates are just around the corner, including:

  • Oct. 27: Last day to apply for advance ballots
  • Nov. 3: General election day

At the Kansas Health Foundation (KHF), we believe residents who are active and engaged in their communities and state – whether through voting, volunteerism or being a part of civic groups – play a key role in the overall health and vitality of Kansans.

With statistics taken from the KHF 2016 Kansas Civic Health Index, a connection can be made between civic engagement and health outcomes, as the same groups that demonstrate lower civic participation also have higher levels of tobacco use, obesity and most infectious diseases.

In Kansas, 56.6 percent of eligible voters report “always” or “sometimes” voting in local elections. Latinos in Kansas are much less likely to report “always” or “sometimes” voting – at 26.8 percent, and African Americans at 46.3 percent, according to the Civic Health Index.

To combat this, several organizations are focusing efforts toward Kansas Latinos, African Americans and other groups who tend to have low voter registration and turnout rates or are new to the democratic process. There are nine KHF grantees working in Kansas as part of an initiative called “Kansas Integrated Voter Engagement (IVE): Health Depends on a Vibrant Democracy” to increase voter registration and turnout in local, state and national elections, and encourage greater civic engagement between election cycles.

One IVE grantee, the Liberal Area Coalition for Families (LACF) has been building a concentrated multi-cultural effort to increase voter registration and turnout in Seward County.

When COVID-19 hit, Kay Burtzloff, IVE project director, said the Liberal community was in crisis and LACF joined together with Genesis Family Health and Seward County United Way to fill the gap of first responder agencies that were no longer operating in their area (Red Cross and Salvation Army).

Their work shifted from holding voter registration drives at community events and at the local community college to providing staff and additional funding to expand the number of food boxes and cleaning supply boxes that were sent to residents hard hit by COVID-19. Between April and September, Burtzloff said the organizations distributed more than 400 food boxes and 100 cleaning supply boxes.

“Additionally, with funds provided by a KHF Health Equity grant, we started a new food bank at the South Church of God,” Burtzloff said, adding that it delivered 320 food boxes from June through September to a part of town that didn’t have a food bank for more than 10 years. “We have been including information in English and Spanish about voter registration or early voting opportunities plus census information in each of the food and cleaning boxes.”

When LACF wasn’t manning voter registration booths at the local Farmer’s Market, it was running radio and Facebook advertisements or sending out 2,000 postcards related to voting by mail, early voting opportunities and voting on election day – all in English and Spanish.

In Wichita, connecting residents with voting materials in Spanish is also important. At the Evergreen Neighborhood Resource Center, Community Services Representative Ana Lopez, Evergreen staff and community partners helped community residents understand they could fill out voter registration forms at the center or at any of their events before the registration deadline (Oct. 13).

“Knowledgeable, friendly and bilingual staff are always happy to help onsite,” Lopez said.

The neighborhood center offered two socially-distanced voter registration events outside. Its community partners were able to help out and spread the word, registering more than a dozen residents.

Residents continued showing up after learning about the registration forms in Spanish. Lopez said she noticed a sigh of relief and happiness in the residents once realizing they could register at any of the events or during regular business hours.

Lopez recalls recently helping a Spanish speaking man in his late 60’s register to vote for the first time. She said he seemed very happy about the entire thing.

“When I asked him what made him come out that Saturday afternoon to register, he said he watched a news segment in Spanish about the event and mentioned that he had never found a place where he could get information or fill out the form in Spanish,” Lopez recalls. “He said ‘Estoy listo para votar,’ (or ‘I’m ready to Vote’).”

Lopez and other community partners are helping reduce confusion about the voting process and explaining the difference between voting options.

The center also has a secure ballot drop box located outside of the facility. These boxes are one of the many ways Sedgwick County is trying to increase voter turnout while helping limit the spread of the virus.

Sedgwick County’s largest entertainment venue, INTRUST Bank Arena, recently opened as the county’s first-ever mega voting site with 50 early voting stations, offering a combination of machine and paper balloting from Oct. 19 to 31, according to recent media reports. Charles Koch Arena will open for one day (Oct. 22) to allow Wichita State University students, faculty and staff a chance to vote early as well.

Whether you’re voting at a mega-site, through the mail or drop box in Sedgwick County, or anywhere in the 105 Kansas counties, KHF asks that you practice your civic right safely.

KHF understands that every vote counts and every voter counts! To help more Kansans participate in the voting process, the Foundation created govotekansas.com, a voting awareness campaign with tools and official links to make voting easy in English and Spanish! It’s as simple as 1, 2, 3: 1) register to vote 2) be informed about the candidates and issues and 3) vote. Visit govotekansas.com today to learn more.

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