Kansas City’s voters head to the polls a week from Tuesday to pick a mayor and City Council. Almost everyone thinks the turnout will be abysmal — perhaps 25,000 voters, a modern-era record in Kansas City voting futility.
There are explanations. A boring mayoral race. Lackluster council races, interesting on a neighborhood level but less compelling citywide. And it’s summer — some voters may be on vacation.
But something more fundamental also is at work. Political and social scientists talk all the time about something called the paradox of voting, which is this: The value of any one vote is close to zero because elections almost never are decided by a single ballot. When the inconvenience and cost of casting a ballot — in time, travel, decision-making — is greater than its value, the rational choice is to just stay home.
Kansas Citians may be making that choice, yet millions of people cast ballots every year. Some political scientists say that’s because people think the value of their votes extends beyond who wins and who loses. Voters may enjoy a sense of community when casting a ballot or feel they are fulfilling a civic duty. Some see politics as a source of entertainment and vote accordingly.
And some voters think their ballots are valuable no matter what the equations say. With just nine additional votes per precinct last November, Democratic challenger Paul Davis would have defeated Republican Gov. Sam Brownback in Kansas. Davis probably considers those nine votes pretty important.
Or maybe not. Gov. Paul Davis would have faced the same $800 million budget nightmare as Brownback just did. Had Davis proposed higher taxes to cover the shortfall, though, it’s likely conservatives in the Legislature would have surrounded his office. Carrying pitchforks.
Instead, Kansas conservatives are now fully responsible for increases in sales, income and tobacco taxes in the state.
And it isn’t over. Kansas may be $400 million in the hole next year, with a school funding court case on deck. The 2016 legislative session may go on forever.
Democrats and moderate Republicans in Kansas might take advantage of this at the polls, or they might not. It all depends on turnout.
They would need more than nine votes per precinct to change the state’s politics. They would need to convince lots of Kansans, in the next 17 months, that voting is more valuable than the coming cost of conservative governance.