Politics & Government

Kansas secretary of state’s website seeks to sway voters to approve Census amendment

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab. Schwab is supporting a state constitutional amendment to change how Kansas counts college and military personnel for the purposes of redistricting.
Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab. Schwab is supporting a state constitutional amendment to change how Kansas counts college and military personnel for the purposes of redistricting. AP

Kansas voters will decide Nov. 5 whether to end the state’s practice of adjusting Census numbers — a requirement Secretary of State Scott Schwab calls outdated and costly.

The state changes its Census numbers to count college students and military personnel at their permanent residences, rather than where they live at the moment. It’s the only state in the country to still do that, Schwab says.

A constitutional amendment to end the adjustments enjoys broad support among lawmakers. But Schwab’s use of his official website to advocate for it is generating some concerns.

State ethics officials have said that action is legal. But some say it sets a bad precedent and could open the secretary of state to requests to post campaign materials on future ballot questions.

A handful of opponents also say ending the adjustments could ultimately harm legislative representation in rural areas.

The secretary of state’s elections web page links to an information card produced by Schwab in favor of the amendment. The page typically holds basic information about election dates and voter registration.

The card — titled “Eliminate the Census Adjustment” — calls the process a “burdensome, antiquated and expensive mandate.”

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“It does seem troublesome that the secretary of state’s office would do this,” said Keshia Morris, the census and mass incarceration project manager at Common Cause, a Washington-based watchdog group. “From my experience, the secretary of state is supposed to be the umpire in elections and not advocating for policy positions but supposed to be the one that calls the balls and the strikes.”

Schwab spokeswoman Katie Koupal said attorneys for the secretary of state’s office approved the card’s language. Ethics commission director Mark Skoglund said the commission told Schwab’s office that using the card was legal.

“Amending the Kansas Constitution is serious, and voters should be able to review what they are being asked to vote on prior to an election — which is why they can review the ballot language and supporting information on our website,” Koupal said in a statement.

Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who was often critical of Schwab’s predecessor, Kris Kobach, said it’s acceptable for Schwab to advocate for the amendment in the “political sphere” but indicated using the website crosses a line.

“It’s not appropriate for the secretary of state to use the official elections website for what is, in essence, electioneering,” Carmichael said.

Carmichael said that if controversial amendments — such as proposals on abortion rights and judicial selection — go before voters in the future and Schwab is found electioneering “there would be serious objection raised.” The information card’s placement on the website sets a bad precedent, he added.

Asked about precedent, Koupal reiterated that no one testified against the amendment and that the secretary of state’s office is directly affected by the adjustment.

The controversy over the amendment’s promotion isn’t the first time thorny questions have been raised about the secretary of state’s role in elections. Last year, Kobach attracted intense criticism after he initially refused to recuse himself while ballots were counted in a razor-close election between him and then-Gov. Jeff Colyer for the Republican nomination for governor. Kobach eventually handed off election-related duties to a deputy.

Schwab stresses cost savings

The amendment is the only statewide question before voters this fall, but the proposal hasn’t drawn significant public attention.

The Legislature approved the amendment near-unanimously this spring. No senator voted against it, and just seven of 125 representatives opposed it.

Gov. Laura Kelly also appears to support it. The amendment will “simplify the way we count people and will cut down on administrative costs,” spokeswoman Lauren Fitzgerald said in a statement.

The amendment removes language approved in 1988 that requires the secretary of state to adjust Census numbers to remove non-resident military personnel stationed in Kansas and non-resident students at Kansas colleges. It would also end a requirement that Kansas military personnel and students be counted at their permanent residence.

The adjusted Census numbers are used to redraw districts for state lawmakers and the state board of education.

Supporters of the amendment say it will give lawmakers more time for redistricting. After the last Census, the Legislature was unable to produce maps and a federal court eventually redrew district boundaries.

“As we saw then, we don’t necessarily have the time to play with when it comes to redistricting,” said Rep. William Sutton, a Gardner Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee. “So we want to get this information in as quickly as possible – just streamline the process.”

Schwab also emphasizes the cost savings to Kansas if the adjustment is eliminated. His office says it will ask lawmakers for $835,000 next year if the change isn’t approved.

Kansas would likely receive new Census numbers from the federal government in early 2021 and Schwab’s office would complete the adjustment within three to six months.

The secretary of state’s office has hired a program manager and temporary employees in the past to make the adjustments, which require contacting every member of the military and college student who filled out the Census in Kansas.

Rural concerns over amendment

Rep. Susan Concannon, a Beloit Republican who voted against the amendment, voiced fears that repealing the adjustment could harm population counts in rural areas.

“Especially our college-age kids will now be counted in Manhattan or Hays, and Lawrence, and I’m concerned it’s going to change our representation possibly,” Concannon said.

Koupal said the original intent of the adjustment was to slow the effects of migration from rural Kansas to the more-populated eastern half. It ultimately had the opposite effect, she said, and marginally increased population numbers for urban areas.

The overall statewide effect of the adjustment after the 2010 census was relatively small. It reduced the Kansas population count by 13,673 statewide, a change of 0.48 percent, according to a report produced by the secretary of state’s office at the time.

The adjustment modestly increased the population counts of numerous counties, both urban and rural.

Ellsworth County, west of Salina, saw its population increase by 1.52 percent, for example. One of the most-populated counties, Johnson, was given a boost of 1.12 percent. The adjustment increased Sedgwick County’s population by 0.24 percent.

The adjustment also delivered significant populations drops to two counties with large universities.

The population in Douglas County, home of Lawrence and the University of Kansas, dropped 10.97 percent after adjustment. In Riley County, where Manhattan and Kansas State University are located, the adjustment decreased the population by 15.49 percent.

If voters approve the amendment on Nov. 5, those changes will no longer be made.

“Almost every state, if not every other state, does it the way we’re proposing in the constitutional amendment,” Sutton said.

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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.