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Eagle editorial: Let locals control election

  • Published Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, at 5:46 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Dec. 7, 2012, at 5:46 p.m.

Sedgwick County is still awaiting Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s report on why the Sedgwick County Election Office took forever to tally votes on Nov. 6, and wondering whether there will be any accountability for that fiasco. But one worthy idea already has emerged from Topeka – letting locals pick their own election commissioners.

Under current law, each county with more than 130,000 residents – Johnson, Wyandotte and Shawnee counties as well as Sedgwick County – must rely on the secretary of state to appoint the election commissioner. In the other 101 counties, election oversight is among the jobs of elected county clerks.

Under a bill proposed last week by Democratic legislative leaders, county commissioners would choose the election commissioners in the four most populous counties. In proposing the local-control approach, Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he wouldn’t oppose letting voters in the large counties elect their election commissioners – whatever it takes, many in Sedgwick County would agree, to avoid more nights like Aug. 7 and Nov. 6, when the county trailed the state and, in the case of the presidential election, the entire nation in getting its votes counted and results released.

Kobach, who appointed Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman in 2011, argued last week that the status quo provides accountability through his ability to replace the election commissioners in the large counties, and that he now can quickly and directly coordinate procedures and policy with those counties.

Maybe Sedgwick County will see it Kobach’s way once his report on the Nov. 6 election is released later this month, and if changes are made accordingly. But as it is, local voters and county officials can do nothing but complain that Lehman appears unable to handle the job of running elections and delivering timely results.

And the clock is ticking toward the Feb. 26 primary to choose municipal and school board candidates. Kobach must demonstrate his authority and ensure his appointee gets it right this time.

While we’re on the subject of Kobach’s authority: One thing the 2013 Legislature should not do is expand it to include prosecution of election crimes. Though Kobach persuaded the Legislature to pass laws requiring photo ID to vote and, as of January, proof of citizenship for voter registration, he has failed to demonstrate that Kansas has a voter-fraud problem, or that county attorneys need his help prosecuting election crimes. And if there is one thing Kansas’ crusading secretary of state does not need, it’s more power.

That said, Democratic lawmakers are overreaching with a second proposal aimed at curbing Kobach’s moonlighting legal work. The past two Sedgwick County election nights alone are enough to cast doubt on whether Kobach is on top of his state duties. But a law limiting some state officials to 10 hours of work a week outside of their official duties sounds like an extreme measure – and one unlikely to gain favor anyway in the sharply conservative 2013 Legislature.

Trustworthy elections should be a bipartisan goal, though. Lawmakers can build and safeguard trust in future elections in the state’s large counties by giving them local control over the choice of election commissioners.

For the editorial board, Rhonda Holman

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