A battle raging from Wichita to Topeka could change how you vote — and how long you stand in line to do it.
On one side are the county commissions of the state’s four largest counties, including Sedgwick, who seek more control over the costs of elections.
On the other are Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and his election commissioners, including Tabitha Lehman in Sedgwick County. They say the system isn’t broken and doesn’t need to be fixed.
So far, the county commissions are winning.
The Kansas House recently passed House Bill 2509, which would give counties control over election budgets. It now advances to the Senate.
And Sedgwick County has already taken a first step to cut Lehman’s spending, canceling the mailing of a $100,000 flyer she usually sends to all voters to promote advance voting and alleviate election-day lines at the polls.
Kobach and Lehman say giving budgetary control to commissions will result in a county-by-county patchwork of voting procedures and invite cost-cutting measures that will lengthen lines and make it harder for Kansas citizens to cast their ballots.
“It’s critical that the largest counties have a consistent policy when it comes to elections,” Kobach said. “That’s something that was decided many decades ago and I think it would be very unwise for our largest counties to have completely different policies when it comes to the administration of elections.”
For example, Kobach said he was able to mandate that all the voting machines in the large counties have a paper ballot trail that can be counted manually if there are questions about the accuracy of computer tallies. He said he couldn’t have accomplished that if the county commissions had the authority over funding.
But county commissioners say the current system insulates the election office from the fiscal discipline that has been imposed on the rest of their operations.
“We as a board would prefer Kris Kobach to stay out of our elections as much as possible,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner Michael O’Donnell. “We have to have some way to rein in spending.”
Commission Chairman David Dennis said the panel is trying to “do what’s right for the citizens in Sedgwick County,” and balance elections against other spending priorities such as criminal justice and mental-health care.
“Each of the different departments come up to us,” he said “We try to make sure that fits into the overall budget we’re going to pass for the year.
“The election commissioner really doesn’t have to fall within those rules and regulations. Depending on what she wants, she’s got authority to go ahead and get it.”
Voting flyer canceled
The opening salvo in the battle came when the Sedgwick County Commission voted to cancel Lehman’s pre-election mailer for this year’s races for governor, congressional and state representatives, county commissioners and other offices.
The flyer would have provided every voter with information on early voting sites and a preprinted application for a mail ballot.
County commissioners say the flyer isn’t required by law, and they don’t want to pay for it. They can do that because the mailing and postage wasn’t part of Lehman’s regular election budget, but an add-on in the budget of the county’s print shop.
“We have no problem putting out information required by law,” Dennis said. “But when we go above and beyond that, then we’re using resources that may be used elsewhere in our county to better serve our citizens.”
Dennis said there are a lot of places citizens can find out about advance voting without having a flyer mailed to their home.
“We’ve got it on our Sedgwick County web site,” he said. “We send it out to the media ... I know that all three TV channels and The Wichita Eagle all publish information on where advance voting is located. I think there are plenty of opportunities for people to be able to find out when to vote, where to vote and who to vote for.”
Lehman says cutting the flyer is a short-term saving that will end up costing more in the long run.
With robust early voting, “we’re able to have fewer polling locations and be smaller and have a significantly smaller (regular) budget,” she said.
Lehman acknowledges $100,000 to send the pre-election flyers is a big expense. But she said it allows her to pull off an election for less money, with far fewer polling places and election workers than she’d otherwise need.
The county used to staff more than 200 polling places on election days. But just before the 2006 election, then-Election Commissioner Bill Gale cut it to 62, and it’s been around that number ever since.
Lehman is adding an additional 10 polling places this year. But that’s just barely enough to offset growth; about 60,000 more voters countywide than when the polling places were cut, she said.
In the 2016 election, there were 11 polling places with more than 6,000 voters each and two had close to 8,000 voters, she said.
In 2006, the last year before the election office started sending early voting flyers, advance and mail ballots accounted for 26 percent of voters, records show.
The first year the flyers were mailed, 2008, that jumped to 56 percent.
Advance voting stayed between 50 and 60 percent until last year’s special election for Congress, when Mike Pompeo resigned his House seat to join the Trump administration.
Because of the short time frame, the election office couldn’t send a flyer and advance voting dropped back to 27 percent, Lehman said.
As a result, lines at some locations ran 45 minutes to an hour and some voters had to give up because they just couldn’t wait that long, she said.
“Whether or not that flyer goes out can be a policy discussion that can happen at another time when we have enough infrastructure in place to handle voters (on Election Day), but we currently don’t have enough infrastructure,” Lehman said.
One thing that rankled commissioners was Lehman’s testimony to the Legislature about the flyers in February.
“In the 2016 Presidential election, around 50,000 people requested ballots by mail utilizing this mailer,” she testified. “If even a quarter of those individuals show up to vote on Election Day, we will be utterly crippled in the 2018 General Election. I sincerely believe that the actions taken by the Board of County Commissioners will lead to the disenfranchisement of registered Sedgwick County voters who are unable to wait in line to vote on Election Day.”
Dennis said Lehman accused the commission of “a pretty serious offense.”
He noted that Sedgwick County has taken the lead in trying to rid state law of confusing language that has disqualified the ballots of disabled people who can’t hold a pen to sign the envelope of their mail ballots.
“We made that as a priority (in) our legislative agenda to make sure we don’t disenfranchise anyone,” he said. “To make accusations that we’re going to disenfranchise someone is totally false.”