Politics & Government

February 25, 2013

Voting will proceed as scheduled Tuesday despite snow

Even before this primary election for a handful of City Council seats was body slammed by back-to-back winter storms, voter turnout in Sedgwick County figured to be meager.

Even before this primary election for a handful of City Council seats was body slammed by back-to-back winter storms, voter turnout in Sedgwick County figured to be meager.

But with this week’s nasty weather weakening folks’ resolve to get to the polls for Election Day on Tuesday, the turnout could be embarrassingly low.

Of the 91,500 eligible voters, less than 1,500 had cast advance ballots by late Monday afternoon.

“This is pretty sad,” Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said. “Obviously, we expect to have a reduced turnout because of the storm. But as far as what the turnout might be, I wouldn’t even know how to guess because we’ve never had anything like this happen.”

Another concern is the turnout of poll workers in bad weather.

Lehman has arranged for a backup plan if snow continues to fall heavily overnight and into Tuesday morning, making it difficult or impossible for election workers to get to their assigned sites.

Four county employees have four-wheel drive vehicles fueled up and ready to get stranded election workers to their locations. If four isn’t enough, some sheriff deputies are on stand-by to help deliver the workers, Lehman said.

She’s already given a pep talk to the polling site judges about the importance of them making every effort to get to the sites.

“Some of them are a little concerned,” Lehman said, “and I certainly understand that. But everybody has signed on doing it, and I’m very proud of them.

“Some of them have found friends who have a monster truck to give them a ride.”

All of the voting equipment was delivered to the 24 sites scheduled to be open Tuesday.

Only one site – Independent Living Resource Center – notified Lehman on Monday that it wouldn’t open Tuesday. Voters scheduled for that site are being sent to Christ the King Church’s Charity Hall, 4411 W. Maple.

The election office’s website, sedgwickcounty.org/elections, will have an updated list of any other changes for poll sites.

Sedgwick County announced all sites were open as of 6 a.m. Tuesday, except for the previously announced Independent Living Resource Center.

“We want to save people the trek out there first thing in the morning, if at all possible,” Lehman said.

If a site can’t open Tuesday, there won’t be time to send supplies to an alternate location, Lehman said. So those voters will be told to vote at the election office, 510 N. Main, suite 101.

Lehman has already authorized hiring a snow removal company to clear the parking lot for least one polling site, Sharon Baptist Church, so it can open Tuesday.

Butler County officials say all of their polling sites will be open as scheduled Tuesday. El Dorado voters will narrow the field for mayor and Augusta voters will advance City Council candidates in three wards.

One option Lehman didn’t choose was to consolidate polling sites into one location — as at least two other counties – Shawnee and Reno – did early Monday.

Shawnee County is having all of its voters go to the Heritage Hall at the Kansas Expocentre to cast ballots for Topeka City Council seats. Reno County will move all voting to its courthouse, 111 W. First Street. Those choices were made so those counties wouldn’t have to worry about getting election workers to all the sites or transporting high-tech voting equipment in the storm.

Lehman noted that Shawnee County voters don’t have to travel more than 5 miles to vote at the Expocentre, while Sedgwick County voters would have to travel further to reach one site.

Tuesday’s primary couldn’t be postponed because state law doesn’t allow an election date to be changed, said Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

But late Monday morning, with the storm raging across the state, Kobach used his authority to extend advance voting hours for the 24 counties holding primaries for municipal and school board elections until 7 p.m. – well past the normal time of noon.

“I’m really glad they did that,” Lehman said.

By 5 p.m., 143 people had cast ballots Monday at the election office. That surpassed the 132 who had previously shown up to vote in advance. About 1,200 voters had returned advance mail-in ballots by Monday, she said.

Voters also can go to the election office all day Tuesday before 7 p.m. to cast a provisional ballot, Lehman added.

About a third of the county’s total registered voters are eligible to vote in this primary, which features a handful of City Council races. For Wichita, only Districts 3, 4 and 6 have primaries. City councils in Park City and Valley Center each have primary for Ward 2.

In 2011, when the primary included an at-large school board and mayoral races in Wichita, only 7.8 percent of voters cast ballots.

The top two finishers in Tuesday’s races will advance to the April 2 general election.

In another Election Day matter, federal agents will be in Seward County in southwest Kansas to observe the election.

The Justice Department has selected Seward as one of two counties in the nation it will monitor Tuesday, a department spokeswoman said in an email. The other one is Cook County, Ill., which includes Chicago.

The agents will be at those counties to make sure they abide by federal law and “provide language assistance during the election process,” according to a department news release.

For Seward, which includes Liberal, that means providing language assistance to Hispanic voters, the release said

The department spokeswoman declined to say why those two counties were selected for monitoring, whether it was a random process or as the result of complaints.

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