Elections

Who will follow Kobach in voting office? Several candidates vie to be secretary of state

The five candidates competing in Republican secretary of state primary are Randy Duncan, Keith Esau, Craig McCullah, Scott Schwab and Dennis Taylor.
The five candidates competing in Republican secretary of state primary are Randy Duncan, Keith Esau, Craig McCullah, Scott Schwab and Dennis Taylor. The Wichita Eagle

Six men are vying to replace Kris Kobach as secretary of state, and five will face off in the Aug. 7 Republican primary.

The GOP candidates: Randy Duncan, Salina, a longtime party leader in the state’s First Congressional District; Keith Esau, Olathe, a computer programmer and current chair of the House elections committee; Craig McCullah, Topeka, deputy assistant secretary of state; Scott Schwab, Olathe, former House elections committee chair and state representative; and Dennis Taylor, Topeka, former secretary of administration.

The winner of the Republican primary will face Democrat Brian McClendon, a software developer and former Google vice president from Lawrence.

Kobach’s pursuit of additional requirements for voters thrust the office into the spotlight. He was a chief proponent of the 2011 SAFE Act, which required people newly registering to vote in the state to provide proof of citizenship. A federal judge struck down that law last month, though the state is appealing.

The candidates said that has brought greater attention to this year’s race.

“In the past, maybe people didn’t think about the office as much, but they certainly do know about it now,” Duncan said.

The candidates largely agreed that voter fraud is not a systemic issue but committed themselves to enforcing the state’s election laws. They also said they want to focus on improving the less-talked-about administrative side of the office, such as the state’s publications and business database and registration systems.

Here’s a quick look at their stances.

Duncan

The two-term Saline County commissioner says his rural background and upbringing set him apart from the other candidates.

He said that the state’s election process could be improved, but that he’d want to “continue down the path” of having some of the nation’s toughest election laws. He emphasized giving local election officials both the support and autonomy to carry out elections.

“All elections are local,” he said. “The chief election officers are at the county level. We’ll concentrate on that.”

Duncan said he’d continue the appeal of the court ruling on proof of citizenship.

He said questions on voter fraud have been “asked and answered” but added there needs to be something in place to verify and back up vote tallies, citing his experience with voting machines in Saline County that kept paper records.

Duncan said he would want to streamline the office’s online systems and forms but offered no details on how that would be accomplished.

Esau

Esau said his background in computer programming gives him a leg up on the other candidates. He said he’d push for upgrades to the secretary of state’s computer systems to protect them from hacking or corruption.

“We need accurate voter records, so that when people show up at the polls, we know who they are by their voter ID, but we also need to make it quick and efficient to show up at the polls and vote,” Esau said.

He said paper ballots and audits of election records are key to ensuring confidence in the accuracy of the state’s elections. “You can’t hack paper,” he said.

Esau said he wants the state to continue the appeal of the June decision in the voter citizenship case.

“Kansans — they like what we’re doing with voter ID and making sure we only allow citizens to vote,” Esau said. “With the current ruling that we have, we’re trusting that when someone signs a voter registration attesting under perjury that they are a citizen, that that’s enough, but we will see if there are additional things that Kansas can do to ensure that we only have actual citizens voting in Kansas. We’ll see where the appeal takes that case.”

The office’s current business database is out of date, and Esau said his first priority would be to upgrade the secretary of state’s internal computer systems.

McCullah

A deputy assistant secretary of state who spent 15 years in the Army, McCullah was the state’s first voter fraud investigator in 2016. During his tenure, he said he came across and prosecuted only two cases of noncitizens who voted.

Requiring photo ID has largely been a success, but McCullah said there’s room for improvement when it comes to providing proof of citizenship.

“From a voter fraud investigator standpoint, requiring proof of citizenship to vote increases the security that we won’t have illegal aliens or unqualified voters voting,” McCullah said. “However, I think that anytime that we put the onus on citizens, we need to do a better job of administering it.”

McCullah said Kansas is ahead of the curve on election security but that it’s still important to instill confidence by keeping paper records of voting to ensure accurate audits of results. He said he would support and help counties update their voting systems to ensure that all election machineskeep a voter verified paper trail, with funding for upgrades coming from filing fees with the office.

As for the office’s other responsibilities, McCullah said he played an integral role in developing the business form finder, and he helped save thousands of dollars by finding inefficiencies and redundancies in the office.

“Conservatives don’t hate government — we just want good government,” McCullah said. “If we can create very simple to use, awesome programs for people that help us meet legislative intent without overstepping the bounds, then let’s do it.”

Schwab

Schwab is House speaker pro tem. He said his focus isn’t so much on changing the office but rather making sure that legislative intent is followed and consistent across the state. That would involve providing education and resources for the state’s 105 county clerks.

Increasing the public’s trust in the elections process is one of Schwab’s priorities, and he supported efforts to make sure all of the Kansas’s voting booths keep paper ballot trails.

Schwab played a key role in implementing the 2011 SAFE Act as chairman of the House elections committee and said he wanted the state to continue to defend the law, which he called effective at combating voter fraud.

“It’s hard to break a law when using your ID,” Schwab said. “Nobody tries to rob a bank and hold their ID up. It took away the motivation for people to even try.”

One of Schwab’s campaign platforms is improving the state’s business database, by upgrading and centralizing forms and by allowing other state agencies access to the data.

“If you can hack Equifax, you can hack Cherokee County,” Schwab said. “We want to make sure we’re creating a chokepoint of security so it’s easier to defend against hackers, both domestic and foreign.”

Taylor

For Taylor, who oversaw efforts to reorganize the state’s IT department, the most pressing issue for the secretary of state is election security. He cited attacks on voter registration databases in 21 states.

“Kansas fortunately did not have that problem in 2016, but it may have it in 2018 or possibly 2020, and we need to be more proactive in preventing that sort of thing instead of waiting for it to happen,” Taylor said.

He outlined a three-pronged approach: audit elections, back up votes with paper ballots and constantly verify system security.

Without frequent audits, it’s hard to say decisively whether voter fraud is a substantial issue in Kansas, he said.

Taylor said the voter citizenship law was ineffective because it failed to check the voter rolls for ineligible voters who may have registered to vote before the law went into place. He added he wants to focus more on beginning voter roll audits than continuing to appeal the court ruling that struck down the law.

Taylor said his other priorities would include improving the office’s IT infrastructure, improving communication between the office and county clerks, and increasing the public’s understanding of the elections process by cooperating with schools and civic groups.

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