A fascinating back-and-forth is brewing between Sedgwick County commissioners and the county’s election office. In Kansas, election offices are presided over by the secretary of state, yet funding comes from their counties.
The counties have no control over election office spending.
As a result, commissioners from Kansas’ four largest counties – Sedgwick, Johnson, Wyandotte and Shawnee – want change and are getting help from the Legislature.
Also as a result: Secretary of State Kris Kobach, long criticized for implementing restrictions that many believe make it harder for citizens to vote and register to vote, comes out of this appearing to advocate for more Kansans voting than the County Commission.
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Both sides have arguments that are winnable in the court of public opinion.
Kobach thinks election policies should be consistent in all Kansas counties, and that means funding of county election offices is determined at the state level.
The Sedgwick County Commission thinks that if the county is going to fund the election office, it should work under the same theory of fiscal responsibility that the commission requires of other county offices.
Both seem reasonable, and they still seem reasonable after a recent fight over $100,000. It’s a drop in the bucket of the county’s $425.2 million budget, but a symbolic drop.
Sedgwick County election commissioner Tabitha Lehman normally sends a flyer to registered voters ahead of an election. This year’s version was to have a list of early voting sites and times, as well as an application for a mail ballot.
County commissioners canceled the flyer. Normally the mailer and postage are untouchable as part of the election office budget, but this year it was an add-on to the budget of the county’s print shop.
Commissioners argue the expense isn’t necessary when voters can learn about early voting and mail ballots through websites, traditional media outlets and social media.
That’s a problem for Lehman, who worries voters won’t remember advance voting and show up instead on election day to longer lines.
Lehman’s numbers back her up. Advance voting was higher than 50 percent each time the election office sent flyers to voters. In 2006 and 2017’s special 4th District election with no flyers, advance voting was less than 30 percent.
So Election-day lines could be long in the county.
There’s much to be said for consistency in election policies across the state. If the Johnson County election office sends out flyers with advance and mail voting options, and Sedgwick County sends out none, hasn’t one county effectively worked to ensure a greater percentage of its voters will participate?
Consistent election practices among counties are nearly impossible because of heavy population centers, but it should remain a reasonable goal of Kobach’s office.
Another goal, though, should be keeping costs down. The County Commission has every right to ask for fiscal responsibility from Lehman’s office. The 104 other county commissions in Kansas have the same right with their election offices, and that’s why a bill in the Legislature would put election-office budgets in county hands.
But the first goal for all involved – before line items in a budget – should be encouraging voter turnout. Early voting and mail ballots have proven to be an effective way to get more Kansans engaged in who represents them locally and nationally.