Elections

How a change in Kansas law and a new app may help you beat the crowds on Election Day

Coming soon to Sedgwick County: You’ll be able to vote at any polling place you want on Election Day and use an app to help find the site where you can get in and out the fastest.

That’s a result of near-unanimous passage of Senate Bill 130, which Gov. Laura Kelly has indicated that she will sign into law by a Monday deadline.

The bill originated in Sedgwick County and was shepherded through the Legislature by a coalition of local officials including the county commissioners, Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman and Sen. Oletha Faust Goudeau, D-Wichita.

SB 130 will “make it much more convenient for our citizens here in Sedgwick County to be able to vote, once this is in effect and we have everything perfected,” said commission Chairman David Dennis.

Faust-Goudeau said the bill will be especially helpful for the shift workers at aircraft plants at the edges of Wichita or others who drive across the county to work.

In last year’s state election, 1,100 people voted at the wrong place and had their ballots only partially counted. In 2016, a presidential year, the number of misplaced voters was 1,600.

“That’s why it’s such a big deal to us,” Lehman said.

Faust-Goudeau said the Legislature spent too many years putting restrictions on voting in the name of fraud prevention and the effort to make voting easier are a welcome change.

In particular, college students and millennials who have grown up with smart phones and Internet access have demanded easier ways to vote, she said.

“We have to change with the times,” Faust-Goudeau said. “We are such a fast-paced world now. If we want things to be different, we have to do things different. I think (this is) some of the best legislation coming out of our 2019 session that will help all Kansans.”

The change may or may not come in time for this fall’s city government elections, Lehman said. It will take some time for Secretary of State Scott Schwab to draft regulations to implement it.

Now, Lehman is working with county technology departments to develop a new election app to take full advantage of the freedom to vote where you want to.

“We’re going to have an app where you can go in and put in your address and get a radius of polling places and see the wait times, and pick where you want to go vote before you walk out your door,” Lehman said. “It’s going to be really cool.”

She said the app has the potential to help balance out election traffic, reducing lines at some of the county’s busier polling places.

Sedgwick County already has the ability to allow any voter to vote at any polling place in the county, Lehman said.

“It’s the same thing we’ve done for early voters for over 10 years now,” she said.

State law was the only obstacle to doing the same on election day, Lehman said.

Until now, people who went to the wrong polling place had to vote with a paper provisional ballot. Those are counted separately and not added to the total until days after the election.

Their votes for president, governor and Congress were generally counted. But their votes for state lawmakers, county commissioners and other down-ballot offices could be thrown out.

“You might have a close legislative race and somebody went across the county and cast a provisional ballot, that doesn’t have the correct legislative race on their ballot, so they did not get the opportunity to vote for the right candidate,” Lehman said.

Russell Fox, a professor of political science at Friends University, said he expects the change to have a “small, but noticeable” effect on future elections.

There are always people who are planning to vote, but get delayed or diverted and can’t make it to their assigned polling site, he said.

Also, it could spur more turnout among college students who live on campus but are registered at their parents’ home.

For example, a busy Wichita State student might be inclined to vote at or near the university, but would skip the election if it meant having to spend an hour on the road back and forth to Derby.

“It’s a small convenience, but small conveniences can add up,” he said.

Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.
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