Johnson County primary election was ‘one for the books’ — Here are some final numbers

Johnson County election officials say large crowds came out to vote on Election Day Tuesday, with more than 10,000 votes being cast per hour throughout the day. Above, voters check in at the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center on Tuesday. Photo credit Evan Johnson.

Despite the usual challenges of an August election — residents on vacations, back-to-school shopping, blistering weather — Johnson Countians stepped up in astonishing numbers to cast their votes this past Tuesday, in many instances crowding into polling places right before the deadline.

  • “For a primary August election, it was definitely one for the books,” said Election Commissioner Fred Sherman Wednesday during a short break in preparation for a required hand count of ballots in the razor close race for state treasurer.

How high was it? Unofficial final results from Tuesday pegged turnout at 53.6%. That was in line with election office forecasts, but it was far outside the norm for any primary election in recent years.

  • Sherman had said before the election that consensus among his staff was for a 50% turnout. For planning purposes, the election office prepared for 65%, just in case.
  • He attributed the higher than average turnout to the constitutional ballot question on abortion, in addition to a four-way race for county chair, which were both nonpartisan, as well as several competitive Democratic races that attracted more voters than usual.

Compared to other August votes: The turnout for this year’s primary was much higher than the August primaries in the most recent previous years, according to figures kept on the county election office’s website.

  • The turnout for the presidential primary in August 2020, for instance, was 34.6%.
  • Turnout in August 2016, the year Donald Trump was eventually elected president, was 20.2%. Other years it hovered in the 20-30% range.

Partisan breakdown: There are more registered Republicans than Democrats in Johnson County, but Democrats had the bigger turnout rates on for this election, though both parties turned out more than in previous elections.

  • For the August 2 primary, Democrats had a 67.4% turnout rate while Republicans were at 60.4%.
  • In 2020, Republicans led the turnout with 47.7% to Democrats’ 46.3%.

Explosion in unaffiliated voter turnout: Turnout for voters unaffiliated with a political party was much, much higher in this election than in the past.

  • The election commission put unaffiliated vote turnout at 28.9% this year.
  • By comparison, only 0.5% of nonpartisan voters participated in 2020.
  • That steep jump can likely be attributed to the abortion question and county chair race being on the ballot, two items for which unaffiliated voters could cast ballots, something unusual for primary elections, which are normally strictly partisan.

Early voting continues to surge: Advance in-person voting was also likely a record, Sherman said.

  • Some 98,751 ballots were cast in the days after advance polling sites opened July 16 and before Election Day.
  • The election office opened 16 advance sites this season, and “those new sites did very well,” he said.
  • On the Saturday before the election, 1,613 votes an hour were being cast.

Last minute crush: A blizzard of votes and requests for ballots came in during the last few days, Sherman said.

  • At the advance voting sites, the biggest push happened during the final three-and-a-half days, when more than 36,000 votes were cast.
  • Election Day itself was also extremely busy, he said, with 10,000 votes being cast an hour.
  • Even mail-in voting showed a rush of people requesting ballots as late as July 26, he said. That’s cutting it close to receive the ballot, mark it and get it postmarked or returned by Aug. 2.
  • Ballots postmarked by then that haven’t arrived yet can still be counted if they reach the election office by the end of Friday.

Why? There are a lot of possible reasons why people were late to get their voting done, he said, from the crush of school and vacation to the national coverage that ramped up as the election neared.

  • “For a lot of folks, it just finally got high enough on their priority list and they decided to vote either Monday or Tuesday,” he said.

Late rush delayed results: For the most part, the election night work went smoothly, Sherman said, although the high turnout did have an effect.

  • The election office did not meet its goal of having its earliest returns announced at 7:30 p.m. as advertised. That was due at least in part to the large number of people still standing in line to vote when the polls closed at 7, he said.
  • When that happens and the line is outside, an election worker goes out to stand at the end of the line, he said. People arriving late can still vote provisional ballots, with a decision announced at the canvass on whether to count them.
  • Even though some other votes elsewhere have already been counted, their results cannot be announced until the last person in line has voted.

Any other issues? Otherwise the day passed with few significant problems, Sherman said.

  • There was some confusion among voters on where their polling places were.
  • There were also questions at at least one polling site about whether the ballot language of the abortion amendment taped on polling site door constituted an illegal sign urging a “Yes” vote, but Sherman said election staff is required to display the ballot language to voters.
  • Except for a paper jam in one of the vote scanners caused by humidity (heat indexes on Election Day topped 100 degrees), the technology also was nearly flawless, he said.

What happens next: Election staffers now turn their attention to requirements for the vote canvass on Aug. 10, where the provisional ballots will be sorted and accounted for.

  • Normally, the office must do a hand-count audit of 1% of precincts, which amounts to seven precincts, Sherman said.
  • However this year a new law requires an audit of 10% of precincts in close races.
  • Because Republican state treasurer candidates Steven Johnson and Caryn Tyson are current separated by just 771 votes statewide, Johnson County must hand count 61 precincts for that election, he said.
  • At the canvass, Sherman will make recommendations on which provisional ballots should be counted, partially counted or not allowed.
  • A provisional ballot is one where the voter’s eligibility is questioned. The vote totals become official once those questions are resolved.

Roxie Hammill is a freelance journalist who reports frequently for the Post and other Kansas City area publications. You can reach her at roxieham@gmail.com