Voting for the Future: Mobilizing Rural Communities to Action
“This is who is making the decisions in our elections.” stated Christi Graber, League of Women Voters of Kansas Garden City Chapter. With only four people standing in the room while the remaining attendees stayed seated, representing those who voted as compared with those eligible, Christi sparked a lively conversation at the final “Voting for Our Future” Dinner and Dialogue town hall meeting in September.
The Kansas Rural Center hosted a series of four town hall meetings in Norton, Girard, Concordia and Garden City to provide information and analysis on federal and state level food and farm policy and programs. Within the broader context of state budget and revenue issues and the need for greater citizen engagement, the town halls also focused on local and regional efforts to strengthen community access to food, resources for farmers, healthcare, and education.
Each town hall meeting included speakers from local health and wellness and economic development organizations, and local growers, in addition to state focused organizations including Kansas Appleseed, League of Women Voters of Kansas (LWVK), Kansas Economic Progress Council, and Kansas Rural Center.
Speakers shared local initiatives including hoop house projects, grocery store co-ops, small business development programs and studies, healthcare outreach, and organizational alliance partnerships. The speakers and organizations fielded questions from attendees covering the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefit recipient requirements, voter engagement support for the underrepresented population groups, and support services for a changing and diverse population in Kansas.
Many of the programs and initiatives shared during the presentations, receive state and federal funds through grants that were revealed to be at risk with the federal Farm Bill in limbo. The Farm Bill houses a variety of programs including not only the nutrition program SNAP, conservation and commodity and crop insurance programs, but also local and regional food support programs such as farmers market and local food system initiatives, value added producer grant program, and beginning farmer and rancher programs. These smaller programs help farmers reach new markets, increase access to healthy food and continue to build infrastructure and offer technical assistance resources. If neither a Farm Bill or Extension of the current farm bill is passed by September 30, KRC speakers explained at the meetings, these smaller programs will be lost.
Sharing the local projects and their impact on the community provided examples of state and federal policy and funding positively changing the local health and wellness landscape. Communities were encouraged to continue to spread the successes of these programs with community members and especially policy makers at a time when these programs are at risk of being completely cut out of the final version of the farm bill.
Voter Engagement, But Why?
Of the 125 Kansas House races up this year, nearly 50 will have only one candidate, explains Paul Johnson, KRC policy analyst. There are thousands of unregistered eligible Kansas voters—especially among youth and communities of color, thus the importance of voter engagement.
The League of Women Voters of Kansas gave an update of the changes with voter registration, after the U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson struck down the Kansas voter citizenship law last June. Under that ruling, the Secretary of State, must instruct all state and county election officers that voter registration applicants do not need to provide proof of citizenship in order to register to vote.
LWVK also explained additional ways to engage in elections included offering a ride to voters that might not otherwise have a way to make it to the polls, help new voters register and take them to the polls, sign up at the county clerk’s office to help as a poll worker (rural communities run the risk of closing polling locations with poll worker numbers down), volunteer to help with a campaign. A new way to encourage greater voter turnout is the new software app, Voter to Voter at www.votertovoter.org, to engage friends and acquaintances in voting during the upcoming election.
Timing of the town hall meetings and the primary election gave opportunity to share current and relevant primary election turnout statistics. Voter turnout while notably lower during primaries at 27% statewide, also revealed diverse results reflecting the current local political climate.
In Norton in northwest Kansas, the first town hall meeting location, the Norton County primary results indicated a higher than average primary election turnout at 39% due to a local magistrate judge race. Voter turnout for Girard (Crawford County in southeast Kansas) and Concordia (Cloud County in north central Kansas) reflected the statewide sentiment toward the primary election with 21% and 30%turnout respectively.
The starkest primary voter turnout statistics, though, occurred during the Garden City town hall meeting with a meek 15.9% voter turnout in Finney County…the lowest primary voter turnout in the state. With a Hispanic population base of over 50%, this statistic also revealed a deeper issue in voter engagement and representation locally. The visualization Christi Graber opened with, hit home the underlying population representation obstacle.
Following the round table discussions, attendees were encouraged to take action. A list of four options included voter engagement both personally and with community members, sharing comments and concerns with local and state policy makers, sharing personal perspective to educate and influence community members, leadership, and policy makers, and a final open- ended pledge of action. Response to the pledges revealed a growing concern for voter engagement with 68% of respondents choosing engaging in voting as their “next step”.
Following the town hall meetings, attendees are encouraged to keep engaging at the local level and to share feedback through a town hall survey to help KRC understand better how to provide needed information and resources. Additionally, resources including a Guide to Voting, Questions to Ask Candidates, and a contact list of state and federal representatives have been made available to aide in taking the next step. Attendees also have the opportunity to delve deeper into civic engagement issues at the “Framing Our Future: What is Right About Food, Farming and Communities in Kansas” farm and food conference, November 16th and 17th in Wichita, Ks. with workshops including “Getting Involved at State Level from Local Perspective” and “Diversity in Kansas: How Kansas Changing”.
Additional resources for farm bill updates can be found in the Kansas Rural Center Policy Watch. Voter resources including a list of candidates and sample ballots can be found at the League of Women Voter of Kansas at http://lwvk.org/.
To learn more about the town hall meetings and plans for 2019, please contact Caryl Hale at 866-579-5469 ext.702 firstname.lastname@example.org.