Election official seeks 13 new sites and 385 more workers to prevent long lines, waits

Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman warns of a chaotic election unless the Sedgwick County Commission provides more money for polling places and poll workers.
Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman warns of a chaotic election unless the Sedgwick County Commission provides more money for polling places and poll workers. The Wichita Eagle

Voting lines could run as long as an hour and a half and almost 2,000 voters would simply give up unless Sedgwick County comes up with the money to add 13 new polling sites and hire nearly 400 more poll workers, the county's top election official said.

Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman requested about $100,000 that she said will be needed to stave off chaos in the upcoming election for governor and other state, federal and local offices.

"This is what we believe we have to do to get through this year," Lehman said. "We will be seeing more people vote (on election day) in Sedgwick County this year than we've ever had."

Lehman made her pitch to the county commission at a staff meeting Tuesday. Commissioners agreed to have County Manager Michael Scholes and his staff evaluate the recommendation and work with Lehman's office to find a solution.

Lehman presented the commissioners with a list of 16 polling places across the county that have way too many voters and are at risk for long lines in the upcoming elections.

The Aug. 7 primary and the Nov. 6 general election are expected to be hotly contested with competitive races brewing for governor and Congress.

Lehman used software developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for her projections. She estimated that one polling place, the Mulvane First Baptist Church, would develop a waiting line eight hours long if voters there didn't give up.

With walk-offs factored in, the peak wait time would be an hour and a half to vote, Lehman said. That polling place alone would likely shed more than 400 voters, she said.

Lines are projected to exceed 45 minutes at six other voting sites: the Bel Aire city building, Cornerstone Christian Church, the Health Department administrative center, Faith Christian Church, Goddard Pathway Church and Reliance Community Church.

It's not a problem that can be solved by adding more voting machines or handing out paper ballots to be filled out by hand, Lehman said.

The county's new touch-screen machines issue a printed ballot and the bottleneck would most likely be at the automated tabulating machine, where all voters now have to turn in their paper ballots.

Many of the sites are small and don't have space to expand to handle more voters, Lehman said.

To remedy the problem, she's suggesting opening 13 additional voting sites — locations to be determined — and moving three sites to buildings with more space.

That will mean a need for more poll workers. Lehman asked commissioners to raise the number of budgeted positions for poll workers to 1,000, from the current 615.

And they're hard to find.

Election Day begins at 4:45 a.m. with setup and ends with reporting and teardown after 7 p.m. About 40 percent of those who sign up end up dropping out, Lehman said.

The county may experiment this year with split shifts to attract more applicants and help with retention, she said.

Part of what's driving projections of long lines is the county backing off its campaign to encourage early voting.

The election commissioner's office has pushed hard to get people to cast advance votes since 2006, when then-election commissioner Bill Gale cut the number of polling places from 208 to 62.

The 13 polling sites Lehman hopes to add would bring the total to 86. The county originally planned to expand that to 100, a number favored by Commissioner Jim Howell,

The commission decided last year not to fund a mailer that would remind voters the election is coming up and provide them with the application to get a mail-in ballot and directions on how to vote early in person.

Lehman said the track record is that far fewer people vote in advance when they don't get the mailed reminder. She projects about 28 percent of voters will opt to vote early, compared to 50-60 percent in elections where the flyer was mailed.

Her projections are based on a 60 percent turnout, which she acknowledged was probably on the high side. However, she said her office has to plan for the worst-case scenario because "there are no do-overs in elections."

Commissioner Michael O'Donnell suggested that Lehman could get more exposure for advance voting and spend less money by advertising online.

Lehman acknowledged that would be less costly than a mass mailing, but she said she's very reluctant to do it on ethical grounds.

The online audience is fragmented and depending on where the ads ran, it could influence who turns out and in turn tilt the results of the election, she said.

For example, advertising on Facebook would only get the information out to people who have access to computers and the Internet and who subscribe to that social network, she said.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DionKansas