October 19, 2011

Sedgwick County elections chief to resign

Along with new election rules, Sedgwick County will be getting a new election commissioner to enforce them.

Along with new election rules, Sedgwick County will be getting a new election commissioner to enforce them.

Bill Gale, the election commissioner for the past eight years, announced Tuesday that he is resigning the post he has held for the past eight years.

"Eight years has kind of been in my mind a good term limit on myself," Gale said.

He said new voting rules also played a part in his decision.

Election commissioners across the state are working to implement photo identification and proof-of-citizenship requirements passed this year by the Legislature. And they may have more new laws to deal with after next year's legislative session and before the 2012 presidential election.

Gale said a new election commissioner will be able to come in "with a fresh perspective and new energy," as he did at the start of his term when he had to implement the federal Help America Vote Act.

Before he was appointed election commissioner, Gale served eight years on the Wichita City Council.

He said that was a good length of term, long enough to accomplish some goals but short enough to not get stale in the job.

Gale said he has not ruled out making a run for another office in the future, although his wife, Charissa Jarboe Gale, will probably beat him to it. Gale said she is considering running for the state House seat now held by Rep. Brenda Landwehr if — as is widely rumored in Republican circles — Landwehr challenges incumbent Republican Sen. Jean Schodorf.

Gale encountered criticism early in his tenure when he cut the number of polling places from more than 200 sites to about 65, mostly in churches.

But even critics of his polling place changes lauded his commitment to the expansion of early and absentee voting, which grew during his tenure to about 40 percent of votes cast.

"We have always worked well with Mr. Gale," said Ernestine Krehbiel of the League of Women Voters. "Sometimes we disagreed on where polling places should be."

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the driving force behind the new election laws, will be appointing Gale's replacement.

"Bill has done an extraordinary job running elections in Sedgwick County," Kobach said. "It will be very difficult for anyone to fill his shoes."

Krehbiel said she hopes Kobach appoints someone "who looks for ways to expand the registration and the vote."

She said she is concerned that a new commissioner might reduce the early voting period and/or make it more difficult to vote by mail, which has occurred in some states with new ID laws and led to charges of attempted voter suppression.

Kobach said the person he appoints "has to be someone who can manage change effectively."

That's not just in implementing the new laws, but also using technology to "maximize voter turnout and maximize confidence in the security of elections," Kobach said.

He said he does not expect Gale's successor to continue to grow advance voting at the rate Gale did.

In fact, he said it could decline as new technology reduces waiting times at polling places.

"There are many people who prefer to vote in person" as a shared civic exercise, he said.

When Gale was selected to replace longtime election commissioner Marilyn Chapman — who retired after 22 years in office — then-Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh advertised publicly for applications and appointed a local panel to conduct interviews and narrow the field.

Kobach said Tuesday that he plans a less formal process for choosing Gale's successor, in part because he believes he can get deeper and better information about applicants if the pool is smaller.

He said he is consulting with some local elected officials for their recommendations.

County Clerk Kelly Arnold said he has been in contact with Kobach's office about the appointment, although he is not seeking the job himself.

"No, not me," said Arnold. Being the former chairman of the Sedgwick County Republican Party and vice chair of the state GOP, "that would probably be too political," he said.

Arnold said he is recommending a candidate for the job, although he would not identify who it is.

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