Politics & Government

Kansas has pitched hundreds of bad ballots. Now a bill would give voters time to fix errors

Sedgwick County adds more than 1,300 votes to election

Sedgwick County’s election board voted to count more than 1,300 provisional and disputed ballots Monday, Aug. 13, 2018, adding those to the total votes from last Tuesday’s primary election.
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Sedgwick County’s election board voted to count more than 1,300 provisional and disputed ballots Monday, Aug. 13, 2018, adding those to the total votes from last Tuesday’s primary election.

Hundreds of voters’ mail-in ballots weren’t counted last fall because the voters didn’t sign them. Instead, they were discarded.

But after just a few hundred votes decided the Republican primary for governor, lawmakers are pursuing a change to state law to allow potentially hundreds of additional ballots to be counted in the future.

The consequences could be huge for close races.

It’s impossible to know if the proposed changes would have altered the outcome of the August primary election, when Kris Kobach beat Jeff Colyer by 343 votes. But numerous voters whose ballots didn’t count would have had the chance to fix their errors.

Voters would also no longer wonder whether their vote counted, because officials would have to try to reach them if there’s a problem.

“This would just help them notify that voter … I just think it’s going to be so helpful to make sure people know their votes are counted,” said Sen. Oletha Faust Goudeau, D-Wichita.

Current Kansas law requires voters to sign mail-in ballot envelopes. Voters who forget to sign their envelopes have only until the end of Election Day to fix the error. Miss that window and election officials are nearly certain not to count the ballot.

Senate Bill 130 would require election officials to try to notify voters who send in ballot envelopes with missing signatures before ballots are officially counted at county canvass meetings. The change also would apply to any voter whose signature on a ballot envelope doesn’t match the signature on file with the county.

Voters would have an additional week or longer to provide a signature, until the canvass in each county. Voters might also be more likely to try to fix problems on their ballots if they know their vote could help decide a particularly close race.

Across the state, potentially hundreds of voters would have additional time to correct a mistake and make their ballot count. Several hundred ballots were rejected statewide during the last election because they lacked signatures, according to Bryan Caskey, state director of elections.

Election officials across the state support the idea. The Kansas County Clerk and Election Officials Association backs the legislation, as well as Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman.

Lehman said voters have until 7 p.m. on Election Day to add their signatures to their ballot envelopes if they forget. After that, voters with missing or mismatched signatures are out of luck, even though Kansas law allows mail-in ballots that arrive until the Friday after the election to be counted.

In Sedgwick County alone, officials decided not to count 80 ballots without signatures during the August primary. Sedgwick County officials rejected 380 ballots in the general election because of a missing signature, Lehman said.

Lehman said the number of ballots rejected in November was a significant jump for the county. During the 2016 election, the county rejected about 90 ballots for the same reason.

“This is why this has come up and we need to address this and give people time to cure this,” Lehman said.

Lehman said the higher number of ballots rejected for a missing signature is partly because more people are voting by mail than before.

More than a third of Kansas voters cast their ballots in advance. In the November election, nearly 38 percent of Kansas voters voted in advance. In the 2016 election, 42 percent voted in advance.

Voting rights advocates have raised concerns over the limited amount of time Kansas voters now have to correct a missing or mismatched signature, in part because of the razor-thin margin between Kobach and Colyer.

Davis Hammet, president of the Kansas-based liberal advocacy group Loud Light, sued Johnson County election officials to reveal the names of voters whose ballots had been rejected because of missing or mismatched signatures. Earlier this month, a judge ruled the refusal to provide the names violated the state’s open records laws.

A legislative committee voted unanimously Friday to send the bill to the Senate floor. Hammet praised lawmakers for doing so.

“This should be one of the least controversial things they deal with this year,” Hammet said about the legislation. “It’s obviously a glaring gap in our election laws.”

At least a dozen states give voters time to fix signature errors on their mail-in ballot envelopes, said Tammy Patrick, a senior advisor at the Washington, D.C.-based Democracy Fund.

Patrick said the legislation may also help voters whose signatures change and who, because of that, are more likely to have their ballot envelopes questioned for a signature mismatch.

Typically, those are young voters whose signatures are still maturing and elderly voters, whose signatures begin to degrade in their 60s and 70s, she said.

“I think those are definitely populations where they would benefit,” Patrick said.

Though Senate Bill 130 is headed to the Senate floor, it’s unclear when senators might debate the legislation. If it passes the Senate, the House would also have to approve the bill before it heads to Gov. Laura Kelly’s desk.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.