Jean Schodorf – the Democrat who is challenging Secretary of State Kris Kobach in November – is calling on Kobach to fire the Sedgwick County election commissioner over improper counting of a ballot petition to decriminalize marijuana.
The commissioner, Tabitha Lehman, determined last week after a recount that the petition was 47 signatures short of the needed 2,928 signatures to present to the city council to put on the November ballot.
Later, supporters of the petition said two pages of signatures submitted were missing from the count.
However, Lehman said only one page was missed when signatures were verified. The election office scanned the petition pages into a computer file and used the scanned versions to determine which signatures belonged to registered voters.
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One page, which was stuck to the back of another page during the scan, contained 11 more signatures, she said.
“I demand that Secretary of State Kobach dismiss Tabitha Lehman immediately on the basis of incompetence and gross misconduct,” Schodorf said in a news release. “Her repeated blunders show a lack of ability to perform the duties she is required to do in her position to ensure safe and secure elections in Kansas.
“Secretary Kobach has done nothing to protect the rights of citizens in Sedgwick County. He has shown over and over again that he will support those who work under his leadership that offend and disrespect the citizens of our state. Ms. Lehman, like Eric Rucker before her, has shown what kind of administration his office provides. It is dishonest, inept and disrespectful.”
Schodorf, a former Republican, also listed instances of delayed election results during the primary and general elections in 2012 by Lehman’s office.
Lehman did not respond to requests for comment on Schodorf’s opinion.
“It shows poor judgment,” Kobach said of Schodorf’s comments in a phone interview. “She’s trashing the reputation of a public servant in order to advance her political career when that person acted to correct an understandable error that anyone could make.”
As secretary of state, Kobach has the authority to appoint the election commissioners for the four largest counties. The rest of the counties are appointed or use their respective county clerk for the job, he said.
While state statute doesn’t expressly say the secretary of state has authority to fire the elections commissioners, it is generally implicit by its authority to hire, Kobach said.
“I have no intention of firing her for doing an extremely careful job and making sure she’s very transparent and accountable and allowing the public to inspect the decision on the counting of the signatures,” Kobach said.
Kobach said he had not spoken with Lehman personally about the issue.
“Kansas law is actually pretty strict when it comes to signature counting,” Kobach said. “These laws have been on the book for a long time.”
Sedgwick County released a statement Wednesday on behalf of Lehman that discussed the process for counting the signatures.
“The petition contained 483 pages of signatures,” the statement said. “As is standard practice when we receive a petition, we numbered the pages, scanned the pages and printed those scans for processing. We do not use the original document when processing a petition.
“At the time of scanning, two pages of the petition became stuck together so that one page was inadvertently not scanned. This meant that when the documents were printed and processed, one page was missing. Further, during the process of validating signatures, it was discovered that three separate pages had deficiencies in the notarization of the document. These three pages were set aside and have not been processed.
“After going through the petition twice, I determined it contained 2,881 signatures that could be counted under Kansas law. When I certified the results to the City Clerk of Wichita, my original certification had a typographical error stating that I was certifying 2,887 accepted signatures. When this was realized, I immediately certified the correct number of 2,881.
“It was not until after this certification that it was brought to our attention that one page had been missed during the scanning process. That page contained 11 valid signatures, which means the petition contained 2,892 acceptable signatures. Under Kansas law, the petition needed 2,928 acceptable signatures. Thus, even including the 11 signatures from the missing page, this petition is still short of the total required.”
Esau Freeman, who is one of the leaders of the marijuana petition, expressed frustration with the Sedgwick County election office during the Sedgwick County Commission meeting Wednesday morning, saying clerical errors left him with doubt that the petition count was accurate.
“I don’t find this to be acceptable business as usual,” Freeman said.
Freeman said he and other petition leaders were not allowed to observe the count.
“The citizens deserve better,” he said.
Sedgwick County Commission Chairman Dave Unruh said the secretary of state, not the county, has authority over the election office.
Commissioners voted to receive and file Freeman’s comments.
Contributing: Deb Gruver of The Eagle