Cindy Hoedel

Rural Kansas shows how democracy wins: Our differences are endearing, not polarizing

Chase County residents had to drive from far-flung farms, ranches and townships to a single polling station in the county seat on a searing day to vote in the Aug. 2 primary.
Chase County residents had to drive from far-flung farms, ranches and townships to a single polling station in the county seat on a searing day to vote in the Aug. 2 primary.

My motives for working the polls at Tuesday’s primary in my tiny rural county were not entirely pure. My sense of civic duty is solid, but the bigger draw was lemon cake.

In the Flint Hills, volunteer work often yields from-scratch meals of the highest caliber.

The election was no exception. Iced cinnamon rolls, an extensive sandwich smorgasbord, fat slices of garden tomatoes, chunks of fresh watermelon and homemade iced lemon cake sustained us through our 13-hour shift.

Food might have lured me out of bed at a scandalous predawn hour, but a more deeply satisfying reward awaited: a front-row seat to democracy in action in a red state that had captured the nation’s attention with its blindfolded-cliff-dive approach to radical tax cuts.

What I saw confirmed what I’ve always known about this place where my family’s roots reach back more than a century: There’s a helluva lot right with Kansas.

Especially in the rural part of the state, the Kansans I know may be stubborn and resistant to new ideas, but they are good-natured and unfailingly polite. Those traits were on display all day.

Chase County residents had plenty of tinder if they were inclined to flare-ups, having to drive from far-flung farms, ranches and townships to a single polling station in the county seat on a searing day in cattle shipping season when the kids were out of school. But they’re not cut that way.

A cowboy, his straw hat damp with sweat around the crown, when asked, “How are you?” answers without irony, “I’m enjoying the cooler weather.” It’s 94 degrees outside, but, granted, those 100-degree days in June and July were worse.

A young mother, very pregnant with two young boys behind her and a third riding on her hip, smiled as she flipped open her wallet single-handedly to show her driver’s license, then patiently herded her brood to one of the tabletop privacy screens to fill out her ballot.

Several older voters brought grandchildren with them as a civics lesson, explaining how voting works and letting them feed the paper ballot into the machine.

It is impossible to discern people’s political leanings in Kansas by party affiliation. In heavily Republican counties where all public offices are held by Republicans, the GOP primary is tantamount to a general election, so a lot of Democrats and independents register as Republicans so they have a say in local races.

But in a small county like Chase, no matter what party people declare, it’s pretty easy to sort out who leans left and right. The important thing is, we all get along.

We tease one another, using “hippie” and “redneck” as terms of endearment.

My heart swelled when a friend with a farm outside Matfield who had told me he never voted showed up at my table. Later he texted me, “It was my first time voting and I was very proud and it was great to share it with you even though we’re on different sides, damn hippies. Love ya.”

All day inside the tin community building, rednecks and hippies, cowboys and townsfolk mingled. On their way in and out, they visited about camping trips to the Great Lakes, about bowfishing, about whether goats eat flowers, about how many head of cattle got shipped out of which pasture that morning, about whether babies were sleeping through the night yet and about how loved ones were faring in the nursing home.

There was no sign of the deep division and polarization that the fearmongers on talk radio and partisan social media sites keep harping about.

Most heartening of all was what happened when young people showed up. Each time a voter flashed a vertically oriented driver’s license (meaning the bearer was younger than 21), poll workers broke into applause and asked if it was the voter’s first election. If it was, more cheers. The kids beamed rather than grimaced.

When the battery-operated plastic clock struck 7 and it was all over, after the paper tapes from the ballot-counting machines had been rolled up and signed and turned over to election officials who would record the results later at the courthouse, I was struck by the realization — sweet as lemon cake — that the clear winner of the day was democracy.

Any time people can come together and cast ballots without coercion, and the person who gets the most votes is allowed to peacefully take office, democracy wins.

That said, I was not at all surprised to learn the next morning that Kansas voted to steer back toward the center after two years of disastrous results of the conservatives’ bold tax-cutting experiment. That’s how the Kansans I know run their businesses and their lives, with clear-eyed pragmatism and accountability.

Cindy Hoedel: 816-234-4304, @cindyhoedel