Everyone knows young people don’t turn out to vote at the same rate as their elders.
But in several recent Kansas City municipal elections, that trend is especially stark.
In Kansas City’s April 7 mayoral and City Council primary, three times more people over age 80 voted than under the age of 30, according to an analysis of Kansas City election board data.
Sixteen times more people over age 60 voted than those under 30.
A year ago, in April 2014, more people over age 90 voted than those under age 30 — 320 voters versus 259.
“That’s a scary statistic,” said Erik Wullschleger, director of LiveKC, a division of Sporting Kansas City that aims to make Kansas City a more attractive place for millennials and to get them more involved.
The youth voter analysis was done by mySidewalk, a Kansas City-based civic engagement company formerly known as MindMixer that uses the Web to connect people with their local communities and leaders. It features government and civic conversations from cities across the country and is free to the public.
MySidewalk officials cautioned that this is just data from Kansas City south of the Missouri River because that’s what the Kansas City Election Board covers. It does not include data from Clay and Platte counties for Kansas City, North.
But mySidewalk’s analysts believe the turnout figures are a good indicator of the whole city and say the findings are of concern.
Rachel DeSchepper, 31, the company’s content marketing manager, said the contrast between the senior citizen turnout and the younger demographic was striking, especially because City Council members to be elected this year will help decide issues that profoundly affect younger generations, such as the future of Kemper Arena, the airport and the streetcar.
Wullschleger, 33, notes that young people tend to vote in droves in presidential elections but don’t at midterms or the local level.
Still, he points out, Kansas City’s general election on June 23 probably will have a greater impact on young people than on the senior citizens who may control the vote.
“This election June 23 isn’t about what happens in the next four years,” Wullschleger said. “It’s the decisions over the next four years that will impact the next 30 years.”
Officials at MySidewalk and LiveKC are talking about ways to improve local voter turnout among all ages but especially among millennials for the June 23 election. Details have yet to be worked out, but they will use the MySidewalk platform and social media to inform people about key issues. They are also in the early planning stages of an event to get people excited about voting in the June election.
MySidewalk officials are also trying to improve turnout in other metro area cities by providing ballot information by ZIP Code as elections occur.
Still, local and national experts say it may be an uphill battle to improve turnout among people under age 60 or 70 in local elections.
“In general, people vote more and more often as they age,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning, which studies youth voting patterns at Boston’s Tufts University. “It has part to do with how their life settles.”
Young people often move every year, so they don’t have the connection to a local area. Plus they are preoccupied with career and family, she said, while seniors have more time on their hands.
People under age 30 do vote in presidential races, which drag on forever and bombard people with news and advertising. Turnout among people under 30 was estimated at 45 percent in 2012 and 51 percent in 2008, she notes, but that goes down significantly in midterm elections and local elections.
Kawashima-Ginsberg said there are exciting efforts in some cities nationally such as Boston to get young people more engaged in budget and other government decisions, which can lead to more voting. But often those initiatives are aimed at connecting high school students, rather than young adults, with local government leaders.
States with the best youth turnout tend to make voting easy, she said. Some have same-day voter registration. Oregon, which has very high turnout, does all mail-in ballots and just approved a law where people are automatically registered to vote when they get a driver’s license. Those approaches are not available in Missouri.
Johnson and Wyandotte counties in Kansas have some provisions for mail-in ballots, but people have to take the initiative to apply ahead of time through their election authorities.
In Kansas City, many young professionals are passionate about city issues such as the streetcar, affordable housing, bike lanes, schools and the ride-hailing service Uber, said Bob Specht, 24, who works in the startup-entrepreneurship industry. But those same young professionals are much more likely to express their views through Twitter and social media than at the ballot box, he said.
“I’m not going to deny the importance of voting,” Specht said.
But he said having to take time off work to get to the polls on a Tuesday isn’t easy, and people his age want a “digital way to vote.”
One person who experienced the low voter turnout among young people this year was 4th District at-large candidate Jared Campbell, 35.
Campbell came in third, with 10 percent of the vote, behind two veteran politicians, Jim Glover, 63, and Katheryn Shields, 68, who advanced to the general election.
Campbell says one of the reasons he ran was to try to make young people aware that issues the council will consider in the next term could affect their quality of life in the city for decades.
He tried social media, is active with young professional groups, and campaigned aggressively for months.
“But it did not translate in the voter booth,” he acknowledged. “Even on election day, I didn’t see the first person under 30 until well into the afternoon. I was out all day, north, south, downtown.”
Retired Kansas City election board director Ray James, who served off and on from the 1970s through 2007, says turnout among seniors has always been higher.
“Any group’s turnout will increase if there’s something of interest to them,” he said. “More senior people have more at stake. They own a house or something.”
James said President Barack Obama was able to mobilize young people in a way that hadn’t happened for years.
“I call that the Pied Piper syndrome,” he said. “That almost never happens in municipal elections.”
Shawn Kieffer, currently a Kansas City election board director, said he wasn’t surprised by mySidewalk’s findings.
“I think we need to make voting more convenient for younger people, in my own opinion,” he said. “When the day comes when we’re doing Internet voting, you’ll see a rise in their votes.”
In other words, Kieffer noted, you need an app for voting.
And that day may be coming sooner than we think, he pointed out.
Kieffer said current voting machines were acquired in 2006 and are reaching the end of their lifespan. So an Internet solution is needed, he said, but there are still questions about how to make it secure from hackers.