TOPEKA — County commissioners, not the secretary of state, would appoint election commissioners in the state’s four largest counties under a bill Democratic leaders plan to file before the start of the 2013 legislative session.
The idea has failed to gain traction in the past. But Sedgwick County’s failure to promptly produce election results in the August primary and November general elections highlight the need for local control, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley said Tuesday.
“The problems in Sedgwick County are readily apparent,” Hensley said.
Previously, the governor appointed the election commissioners in Sedgwick, Shawnee, Wyandotte and Johnson counties, Hensley said. Lawmakers shifted that control to the secretary of state years ago. Smaller counties elect a county clerk who handles elections.
Hensley said his bill would give elected county commissioners the power to appoint election commissioners, but he said he wouldn’t oppose having voters elect a commissioner instead.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence said Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman’s performance in elections this year raised concerns, and he suggested Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office may not have provided her enough assistance to fix problems before election day.
Davis said he doesn’t think partisan politics played any role.
“It’s a competence and execution issue,” he said. “We just may not have a team there that is capable of running an election the way it should be done.”
Lehman’s office has said software programming issues led to results being delayed on election night. The office did not post any results until shortly before 11 p.m., well after the presidential race had been called. Full results weren’t available until about 2 a.m. the next day, and many candidates complained that they had to send supporters home from election night parties without knowing who won.
Kobach said his office is still working on a report that will outline what went wrong. He declined to comment about its findings, but he said it will be available later this month.
Kobach said he wants to retain the power to appoint election commissioners in the state’s four most populated counties because it provides more accountability. County commissioners control the election commissioners’ budgets and have some indirect control over how many polling places are available, he said. Meanwhile, election commissioners are accountable to the secretary of state, who can oust them.
He also said the status quo allows him to quickly coordinate procedures and policy with the state’s largest counties directly. County clerks, who are elected, aren’t as tied to Kobach’s office.
“I think that the Legislature struck a good balance where you have some control by county commissioners and some control by the secretary of state’s office,” he said.
A second bill would limit many state officials to a maximum of 10 hours of work a week outside of their official duties.
Democrats say Kobach spends too much time fighting for strict laws against illegal immigration in other states. Over the past year, they’ve repeatedly noted Kobach’s travels and appearances on TV talk shows where he’s discussing immigration laws. They say that seems to take his focus away from his duties as secretary of state.
Democrats also have sharply criticized Kobach for getting involved in partisan politics during election season. Kobach created a political action committee, called Prairie Fire, that paid for ads aimed at defeating Democrats, and he served as an honorary chair on Mark Gilstrap’s campaign against Democratic Sen. Kelly Kultala.
“You can either administer elections or influence them,” Davis said. “But you can’t do both and claim to be unbiased. We need a full-time secretary of state.”
Kobach called the idea of limiting his off-hours work “ridiculous.”
He said that he works on immigration law on nights and weekends. When he has to appear in court for a case, he takes a vacation day, he said.
Currently, Kobach said, he has two active cases. One is in the 8th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. It’s a legal battle over a law in Fremont, Neb., that bans landlords from renting to illegal immigrants and requires employers to check workers’ residency on the federal E-Verify system.
The other case is in a district court in Dallas, where Kobach is representing 10 Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents who are fighting President Obama’s decision to defer deportation action against otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants who are younger than 30 and have pursued higher education or military service to temporarily stay in the country.
Kobach said Democrats’ push to limit his work on illegal immigration is clearly a partisan jab and has nothing to do with improving government.
“The idea that the Legislature should have control over my spare time is a silly one,” he said. “If the secretary of state golfed a lot and the Legislature didn’t like that, would they limit him to three rounds of golf per week? It’s silly. I spend my spare time litigating and doing things to stop illegal immigration.”