Despite new law, you won’t be able to vote wherever you want in the mayoral election

A new law to allow you to vote at any polling place in the county won’t be ready for this year’s elections — and Democratic lawmakers want to know why.

The law, proposed and shepherded through the Legislature earlier this year by Sedgwick County officials, is now on hold, waiting for Secretary of State Scott Schwab to write the rules and regulations needed to implement it.

And Schwab has told county election officials across the state that it won’t be in time for city and school board elections in August and November.

“The legislation has multiple benefits but also the potential for substantial unintended consequences on election security, local election officials and the Kansas electorate,” Schwab wrote in a letter to Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman.

“It is a process that should not be rushed,” the letter continued. “Given the infancy of our term and the fundamental change this legislation has on Kansas election operations, we respectfully ask for time and ask counties not to implement (the new law) until rules and regulations are complete.”

State Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, he’ll be sending Schwab a letter urging him to hurry it up.

“That (delay) is contrary to what I believe was the legislative intent,” Hensley said. “It was a bipartisan effort coming from Sedgwick County to allow people to go to any polling place if they’re confused about where they should be voting.”

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, had asked Gov. Laura Kelly to come to Wichita for a ceremonial bill signing before the upcoming election.

“I wanted to get the word out there so that people could utilize the new law,” Faust-Goudeau said.

But then she learned that Schwab had told election officials to hold off until 2020, she said.

“During the (legislative) hearings, Tabitha Lehman indicated that this would be simple, ” Faust-Goudeau said.

Sedgwick County does already have the technology to let voters cast a proper ballot at any polling place.

In fact, the county already does that for advance voting locations and only the old state law keeps it from happening on election day, Lehman said.

But Lehman said she’ll follow the instructions from the secretary of state to wait on implementing the new law, because it could expose the county to legal issues if she goes it alone.

Hensley said if nothing else, the Sedgwick County local elections could serve as a pilot project to see if there are glitches that should be fixed by the Legislature next year.

“I mean, we’re going to be reasonable here.” Hensley said. “We understand that he (Schwab) may not be able to promulgate rules and regs prior to the Aug. 6 primary, which is less than two months away. But surely he would have ample time to implement the rules and regs for the Nov. 5 general election.”

Schwab spokeswoman Katie Koupal said that’s just not enough time.

Because it’s a statewide change, Schwab plans to pull together a committee of diverse stakeholders to ensure that the regulations work equally well in rural and urban counties, she said.

Another holdup is that Schwab, who took office in January, hasn’t been given full security clearance by the Department of Homeland Security that he’ll need to carry out the regulatory task, Koupal said.

Homeland Security is involved because voting equipment was classified as part of the nation’s “critical infrastructure” after cyberattacks originating in Russia penetrated security in several states during the 2016 election cycle.

Sedgwick County Commission Chairman David Dennis sought to make it clear during this week’s meeting that “It’s not Sedgwick County trying to defer this.”

“We are definitely on board for doing this as soon as possible” he said. “But right now we don’t have the ability to do it in 2019 (because of the delay in the state regulations), so we’re pushing to make sure that we can get it done in 2020.”

There’s at least a small silver lining for voters who go to the wrong place for the August primary.

They can still request a provisional ballot at any polling site and their votes will count for all the races they’re eligible to vote in, Lehman said.

Because of the small number of candidates running in city and school board elections, the only two contests on that primary ballot will be Wichita mayor and one at-large seat on the Wichita school board.

Chances are that a Wichita resident who votes in Wichita, even at the wrong polling place, will get a ballot with both races on it. And if they don’t, it will be immediately obvious.

It will be a different story in November when the ballot will be much longer and include City Council and school board races that are divided up by districts.

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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.