After nearly three months of intense training, the head of Sedgwick County’s election office is confident Tuesday’s primary will run smoothly after two Election Night stumbles last year.
“We’ve certainly learned a lot,” said Tabitha Lehman, the county’s election commissioner. “We know a lot more about what we’re doing, and we feel a lot more prepared.”
Inaccurate posting of early election results and long delays in releasing final results in August’s primary and November’s general elections led to the secretary of state’s office investigating Lehman’s office. A six-page report issued Dec. 21 recommended changes, including how to avoid the “preventable human mistake” that caused some of the woes.
Full results in the general election didn’t come until almost 2 a.m. on the following day.
Tuesday’s primary — featuring only a handful of city council races — will be miniature in comparison to November’s election and even to the August primary.
“This is a good chance for us to test our new procedures,” Lehman said. “We still have the same processes to go through, just without the same amount of voters.”
More than 184,000 votes were cast in November and nearly 109,000 in August. Only 7,000 registered voters are expected to fill out ballots for the primary. And it wouldn’t be surprising if the turnout were much less.
If advance voting is any indication, folks aren’t eager to vote in this primary. Of the 2,700 mail-in ballots sent out, only 1,050 had been returned through Friday, Lehman said.
Only 91,500 Sedgwick County residents are eligible to vote in this primary for three Wichita City Council districts — 3, 4 and 6 — and one city council seat each in Park City and Valley Center. Registered voters who don’t live in those districts can’t vote in this primary.
Once in the booth, it shouldn’t take long to a voter long to make a selection. Each ballot only has one race. That also should cut down on the reporting time for each of the polling sites.
Tuesday will have only 25 polling sites, far less than the normal 62 sites.
Regardless of the scale of this primary, voting observers will be keeping a sharp eye on how Lehman handles the election.
“The big thing is we just want to make sure there are no glitches in the system,” said Ernestine Krehbiel, president of the Kansas League of Women Voters.
During a recent meeting with staff and the county commission, Commissioner Richard Ranzau said about the past glitches, “We need to get elections right.”
County Manager William Buchanan responded, “There was nothing wrong with the results. They were accurate. Tabitha and her staff have been retrained.”
Most of the troubles centered on results being delayed for hours while early returns from advance and absentee ballots were initially reported as the full and final count
On election night in November, Lehman initially blamed the software for the errors. But she later acknowledged it was “user error,” which is also what Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s staff and vendor officials found during their investigation.
The investigation found workers in the county’s office failed to mark an on-screen box that would have properly reported the number of precincts that had been counted. Subsequent training emphasized making sure the election office staff checks the box at the appropriate time.
“We went through those steps multiple times to make sure it was done correctly,” Lehman said.
Training was conducted by a representative of the vendor — Omaha-based Election Systems and Software — that manufactures the tabulation and reporting software used by the county.
A vendor rep also will be at the election office Tuesday to help if any problems arise, Lehman said.
In addition, the election office held one full-scale mock election — including setting up and tearing down 60 voting machines and running reports — in late January and another mock election last week that focused on precincts, Lehman said.
“We did this election completely through once,” she said.
Lehman headed up similar training after the August primary problems and before the November election, but she said there was more time to work through a thorough process.
After the on-site investigation, Kobach found that the staffing level of Sedgwick County’s election office was too low and recommended that county officials increase it to comparable levels found in offices in Johnson, Wyandotte and Shawnee counties.
Excluding Lehman, Sedgwick County has three full-time employees. Johnson, which has nearly 110,000 more registered voters than Sedgwick, has 15. Shawnee, which has nearly 165,000 fewer registered voters than Sedgwick, has eight and Wyandotte has seven.
Sedgwick County has cut its staffing since the 2008 presidential election year, when the office had eight full-time employees, excluding Bill Gale, the election commissioner at the time.
Lehman said she has requested two additional full-time employees. That request is going through the county’s approval process and eventually will need to be approved by the county commission, a county spokeswoman said.
The general election is April 2, when a significantly larger voter turnout is expected.
To speed up the reporting process and shorten the lines at the polls, Lehman also hopes to increase the number of polling sites. The county had 208 sites before they were cut to 62 in 2006 to save costs.
Lehman didn’t cite how many she wants, saying she needs to wait until the Legislature decides this year what to do about proposal to move local elections currently held in the spring to the fall. But she has already begun sifting through a list of possible sites to see if they meet federal guidelines for accessibility by the disabled.
“I hope to have more voting sites before the next big election (in 2014),” she said.
Because of an apparent miscommunication between Valley Center city officials and Lehman’s office about the need for a primary, that election was delayed in being set up. All votes will be cast using a paper ballot. As a result, the county’s deputy election commissioner will be at the Valley Center polling site to observe the counting, Lehman said.
That shouldn’t take long. Only about 1,000 people are registered to vote in Ward 2, and only 69 voted the last time Valley Center had a single ward primary, Lehman said.