County election office will get funds to add 4 staffers

Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman says her department can’t continue at current staffing levels.
Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman says her department can’t continue at current staffing levels. File photo

Amid a wide variety of proposed cuts, Sedgwick County’s election office got a boost in the recommended budget.

But it’ll receive a bigger boost in the adopted budget.

To handle next year’s presidential and state legislative elections, the county’s election office will receive four additional staffers in 2016. The 2016 recommended budget unveiled in July gave them money for only two of those new positions.

Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman certified a higher budget with the four new employees she originally requested in May during departmental budget hearings. The county is now required under state law to fund the full request, according to county staff and commissioners.

She says her vastly understaffed office needs the help ahead of a busy election year.

“We have to have the staff we need to do our job and we have to have the resources,” Lehman said. “It’s an important job.”

Lehman said the department can’t continue at its current staffing levels, where she says workers put in hundreds of hours of overtime during busy election months.

“These are elections,” Lehman said. “This is not an industry where we can have mistakes made.”

The 2016 recommended budget gave the department an additional $114,626 for only two new employees.

“It was a matter of what the commissioners and the (county) manager at the time thought was needed and what they thought we could afford,” said Chris Chronis, the county’s chief financial officer.

The new staffing request now doubles that to $229,352 for new personnel from the 2016 budget.

Chronis said it was the first time the election commissioner has certified the department’s budget. He said the position is the only county department head or elected official that can certify their budget amount under state law.

County commissioners said they will find a way to fund the additional positions.

“We have no choice; we could get sued if we don’t provide the funding for the extra staff,” commissioner Jim Howell said.

The elections office receives its budget from Sedgwick County, but the election commissioner is appointed by the Kansas Secretary of State, unlike other county department heads.

“I’ve never heard of certifying the budget, but I guess it’s part of the system with the Secretary of State,” commissioner Tim Norton said.

It’s an expense that will be included in the final budget, which will be adopted Wednesday after commissioners debate whether to cut programs tied to public health, economic development, city partnerships and culture and recreation.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, speaking Saturday at a picnic fundraiser for the Sedgwick County Republican Party, which some commissioners attended, said the understaffed department is a “major problem” the county faces.

“Right now in Sedgwick County, they are understaffed, really understaffed, compared to the other election offices in Kansas,” Kobach said.

Lehman said the department can add its first employee devoted solely to voter registration, which peaks during presidential election years.

“We feel that is very, very necessary, especially with changes to election law and voter registration,” she said.

One full-time employee will maintain the county’s election machines during early voting periods and election nights.

“You get into elections and you have the person who needs to be troubleshooting machines when they’re down is also the person who is supposed to be reading results,” Lehman said. “We can’t have it that way.”

Workers in the other two positions would perform office management and advance voting duties, she said.

“There will be times where we just don’t have enough staff to cover the front desk or answering phones,” Lehman said.

The elections office expects a huge turnout for the fall 2016 election.

“This is mainly due to the fact that there will not be an incumbent presidential candidate on the ballot and that interest in the state legislative process has been piqued of late,” according to a June letter about the budget certification.

The budget does not include any funds for special elections.

Contributing: Matt Riedl of The Eagle

Reach Daniel Salazar at 316-269-6791 or dsalazar@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @imdanielsalazar.