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Youth turnout for local elections is historically weak. But these young voters are paying attention.

Turnout for the Mayoral forum held by ‘W,’ a young professionals group, exceeded what the group expected by more than double.
Hugo Phan
Turnout for the Mayoral forum held by ‘W,’ a young professionals group, exceeded what the group expected by more than double.

From housing to police reform to economic development, young voters have a variety of priorities they want the Wichita City Council and mayoral candidates to address this election season.

At a Wichita mayoral forum this June, a crowd of young voters crammed into a room in the Evergreen Branch library.

Candidates each took a stab at sharing their vision for retaining and attracting young talent in Wichita.

“The data shows that people under 40 (are) leaving Wichita for other opportunities," said current mayor Brandon Whipple. "... And when you dive deeper into that data, the overwhelming majority are sadly women and people who fall into a minority group category. ... I’m proud to say as mayor we were able to establish the Diversity, Inclusion and Civil Rights Advisory Board. We were able to attack some of these issues when it comes to ... what we can be doing to make it a more inclusive environment."

“My vision for retaining young talent is to remind our students that we are investing in them, in their education, right now — so that they’re equipped for those future jobs,” said mayoral candidate Lily Wu. “... To attract young talent, I want to make Wichita the safest community for families and the best place in America for businesses to start and grow here.”

The last election cycle with a mayor’s race and no federal races was in 2019. That year in Sedgwick County, only 3 percent of 18 to 29 year old registered voters turned out during the general election. That’s exponentially smaller than the double digit turnout among voters over 45.

But at this summer’s forum hosted by W, a young professionals group, the room buzzed with interest. And it wasn’t just the fluorescent lights.

“We ended up having about 120 show up to that,” said Alex Hamel, the chair of W. “And we were expecting somewhere between a 30- to 50-person showing. It definitely blew everybody away.”

Neal Allen, a political science professor at Wichita State University, said young people are less likely to vote in local elections because they’re more transitory.

“The more you move, the less likely you are to be attached to a place and vote,” Allen said.

But he said issue-specific topics — like last August’s abortion rights vote — are more likely to draw young voters.

Some Wichita voters are riding that wave. Wichita State student Juliet Banuelos, 20, said she helped friends vote on abortion last year, so she’s doing the same thing this year.

“I have told them that I’ll find us ways to go to the nearest voting center and go vote,” said Banuelos, who added that she’s paying attention to local elections because she plans to stay in Wichita long-term.

“I would say [there’s] an insurgence of more political awareness in people from my generation and even people who are around my age,” Banuelos said. “We were stuck in Covid and on TikTok. We got to see and hear everything that was going around us locally.”

Voters filled almost every seat at the mayoral forum hosted by W, a young professionals group.
Hannah Crickman
Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce
Voters filled almost every seat at the mayoral forum hosted by W, a young professionals group.

Young voters’ priorities for local elections are diverse. Issues that arose repeatedly in interviews with Wichitans under the age of 40 included housing and homelessness, police reform and economic development like jobs and small business support. Other topics voters brought up were food insecurity, mental health, LGBTQ+ rights, transparency and crime.

Many young Wichitans, like 29-year-old Cat Butler, are concerned about growing housing costs. A 2022 Kansas Speaks survey found that 18 to 34 year olds were more likely than older people to disagree or strongly disagree that their community is adequately addressing housing issues.

Butler is worried he’ll face a rent increase this August — and wants to know what mayoral candidates will do about affordable housing.

“If we look for any alternatives for a similar amount of space, my roommate and I, we’re looking at minimum two to three hundred dollars more than what we’re currently paying,” Butler said. “And the wages we make working, they don’t reflect how much things are increasing.”

Results from the 2022 Kansas Speaks survey conducted by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University.
Docking Institute of Public Affairs
Fort Hays State University
Results from the 2022 Kansas Speaks survey conducted by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University.

Butler said the city needs more shelter options for people experiencing homelessness. And several young voters said they want changes in the police department, like adding more mental health professionals to respond to crises.

A 2023 national poll found young people have mixed views on whether police officers make them feel more or less safe. That echoes among young Wichitans.

Nineteen-year-old college student Reeya Kamath said she doesn’t think the Wichita Police Department needs more funding. She’s looking for a candidate who doesn’t prioritize police funding.

“There are a thousand more pressing issues,” Kamath said. “In addition to the fact that WPD in recent years has had a history of not dealing with young people and marginalized communities well.”

But Joseph Schumock, 26, said he’d like the police department to be able to respond more quickly to emergency calls. It’s one of his top issues when voting on a mayor or City Council candidate.

“I, myself, living downtown have had to call 911 over the last several months,” Schumock said. “Watching the response times of the Wichita Police Department take forever and being told by dispatchers that there are other pressing phone calls … that unless someone is being physically injured or dying, they can’t do anything about the response times right now. That affects me.”

Young voters also say they’re eager for well-paid jobs and a thriving community with restaurants and things to do. Entrepreneurs wonder what support the mayor and City Council candidates would provide small businesses.

“You have to go through certain credit reports if you want to get a business loan,” said Kara Billie, 29, a small business owner. “It would be great to have a community-based support system from the government to say, ‘Hey, none of that past matters. … You want to start something from the ground up? Let's try to help you build that.’”

But to make progress on what young people want, Kamath said, they first need recognition and representation in local government.

“Sometimes it feels like candidates will be willing to take pictures with our group or give us a high five and then move on,” Kamath said. “The people who have been making things happen in Wichita have always been young people — in terms of addressing issues like food insecurity, the August 2nd vote, in terms of youth programs, mutual aid.

“I really wish that candidates would recognize that and give the young people who have been on the forefront of those issues the respect and consideration that they deserve.”

Celia Hack is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, she worked at The Wichita Beacon covering local government and as a freelancer for The Shawnee Mission Post and the Kansas Leadership Center’s The Journal. She is originally from Westwood, Kansas, but Wichita is her home now.