WSU expert runs exit poll as suspicions linger over voting machines

Kevin Hackerott casts his vote in the primary election at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church at 645 N. 119th St West.
Kevin Hackerott casts his vote in the primary election at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church at 645 N. 119th St West. The Wichita Eagle

Statistician Beth Clarkson and Women for Kansas leader Lynn Stephan sat under a picnic tent in 90-degree heat, asking voters to fill out a survey form about who they voted for.

Most were happy to participate, once they knew the survey was as anonymous as the ballots they had just cast and designed to evaluate the accuracy of the machines they’d just cast those votes on.

Or maybe it was the free ice-cold bottled water and chocolate chip cookies.

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That was the scene at Sedgwick County’s first-ever Citizens Exit Poll, set up outside the polling station at Countryside Christian Church in southeast Wichita.

“It’s not really going to tell us anything about the election,” Clarkson said of the exit poll. “It’s going to tell us about the voting machines.”

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said she welcomed the exit poll.

“I’m glad they’re doing it,” she said. “It’s going to prove that our counts are accurate.”

It’s not really going to tell us anything about the election. It’s going to tell us about the voting machines.

WSU statistician Beth Clarkson, on her exit poll

Voting across Wichita appeared to go smoothly, with no more hiccups than those that normally accompany any election, like random voting machine breakdowns.

“We’ve had a few reports involving aging equipment or paper jams, or human error, and we’ve sent the IT people out to fix the problems with the machines,” Lehman said.

There also were some reports of voters being given the wrong party ballot, which appear to have been corrected on-site.

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One of those voters was Janiece Baum Dixon, who declared her party affiliation to vote in the primary at Westside Church of God.

Poll officials handed her the paperwork for the Republican Party, she said.

“I filled it out and was halfway done when I saw (Republican U.S. Rep. Mike) Pompeo’s name. And I took it to them, and said, ‘What’s this?’

“They said, ‘That’s what we thought you wanted.’ 

She told them she wanted to be a Democrat, and they said they assumed she wanted Republican because there were no contested races on the Democratic ballot. She pointed out that there actually were contested races for the U.S. House and Senate.

Told of Dixon’s complaint, Lehman said she’d have her staff call and counsel the poll workers on proper procedures.

“If only half of what you told me is true, it’s so wrong,” she said.

Terese Johnson, chair of the county Democratic Party, said her observers did note one discrepancy at a polling place where workers didn’t follow the prescribed layout and people’s voting screens were visible from the door.

“But thanks to our deputy election commissioner it got corrected quickly,” she said.

The potential number of voters for state and local races grew by more than 17,000 late last week when a judge ruled that voters who registered at the Kansas Department of Motor Vehicles but did not prove citizenship could have their votes counted even in local races.

Indications from early provisional ballots were that few of those voters took advantage of the ruling.

Despite the apparent smoothness of the election, there remains a lingering suspicion that the touch-screen voting machines don’t record the votes correctly, prompting some voters to request a paper ballot, which they’re allowed to do.

Across the city from where Clarkson had pitched her exit-polling tent, Justin Daily asked for a paper ballot when he voted in far west Wichita.

A Republican, he said he questioned the results of the 2014 election and wanted to make sure his vote counted.

“I figured a paper trail is a little better than an electronic vote where I don’t know where it’s gone,” he said.

I figured a paper trail is a little better than an electronic vote where I don’t know where it’s gone.

Voter Justin Daily

Mark Graber, the supervising poll judge, said fewer than one in 10 voters had requested a paper ballot at the site at Pawnee and 119th. He said he didn’t expect a rush on paper ballots. Those are usually requested when lines are long and voters don’t want to wait for a machine.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach said he expected 24 percent of registered voters to turn out for the primary. If that number holds, it would be a slight increase from the 23 percent of registered voters who participated in the 2012 primary. Turnout in the 2014 primary was about 20 percent.

Precincts across Wichita reported a steady, but not overwhelming, stream of voters, and they seldom had to wait for a machine.

Daily’s wife, Alexa, said she went ahead and voted on the machine, although she shares her husband’s suspicion about them. A Democrat, she said she didn’t think there would be a problem since there was so little on her ballot.

“I just had two (races) that were contested,” she said.

The Dailys said they don’t know Clarkson, but their suspicions were aroused by a court battle she waged after the last state election.

Clarkson, a statistician at Wichita State University, is widely known for her analysis of the 2014 election returns, in which she found what she called inexplicable discrepancies between results of large and small voting stations.

Wanting to check the accuracy of those election returns, she went to court to try to get access to the paper audit trails from the voting machines. The district court ruled she couldn’t have them.

So, lacking access to the official paper trail, Clarkson is creating her own with the exit poll. She said she’ll tally her survey – adjusted for the voters who declined to participate – and then see whether the official count falls within her survey’s calculated margin of error.

Unlike most exit polls, Clarkson’s was staffed from the polls opening at 6 a.m. to polls closing at 7 p.m., and an effort was made to get participation from every voter.

The single-precinct poll is a pilot project, and Clarkson hopes to recruit enough volunteers to cover every polling place in the county in the November general election.

At a polling station in northeast Wichita, 77-year-old Theo Cribbs Jr. said he doesn’t completely trust the machines but uses them anyway.

“Sometimes I think about it,” he said. “I can’t do anything about it anyway. Even if it was a paper ballot, it’s still the same.”

Contributing: Roy Wenzl and Stan Finger of The Eagle; Hunter Woodall of the Kansas City Star; Associated Press