How the Legislature can take up where statistician has been stopped

People vote on electronic voting machines at the Old Sedgwick County Courthouse on Nov. 3, 2016.
People vote on electronic voting machines at the Old Sedgwick County Courthouse on Nov. 3, 2016. File photo

Much good can come from Beth Clarkson’s 2 1/2-year quest to solve an unexplained pattern of voting results, but only if the Kansas Legislature can see the bipartisan importance.

Clarkson, chief statistician for Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research with a Ph.D. in statistics, has tried since April 2015 to examine paper results from the 2014 general election. She wanted to answer why results tended to increase Republican votes in large precincts. Polling didn’t reflect the tally, which Clarkson reasoned could be caused by unseen demographic trends or fraud within the vote count.

She sued Sedgwick County elections commissioner Tabitha Lehman and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach for paper results.

Representing herself, Clarkson lost when her case was framed more as an open-records filing than a recount request. Her new lawyer called her “a brilliant statistician but a horrible lawyer” in a Kansas Court of Appeals hearing Tuesday.

Clarkson isn’t accusing the county or state of shenanigans. She’s not looking to change winners from three years ago, or to know how any specific person voted. She’s a statistician craving statistics to prove or disprove a theory.

She may not get them, but as Judge James Burgess told her, “ … Sometimes it does take a legislative act to change it.”

Democrats seem eager to take up Clarkson’s cause. Three legislators went to lunch with Clarkson after the hearing, and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goodeau, D-Wichita, said she asked Clarkson for a synopsis of what Faust-Goodeau should craft in a bill to make voting results more open to scrutiny.

Democrats, the minority party in the state and the ones likely hurt most by voter fraud, have obvious reasons for hearing Clarkson’s message.

Republicans should, too. All Kansans should want accurate election results. The way to guarantee accuracy is a reliable audit system where county and state elections officials are able to count on a second set of results for verification.

Clarkson’s pursuit started well before Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, but reliable voting tallies become more suspect with fears of foreign hacking. Bloomberg reported 39 state election systems were targeted by Russian hackers last year. It’s likely those intrusions aren’t one time-only occurrences.

A bill that passed the Kansas House last spring would have required a paper ballot for every vote, spot-check audits and random sampling of machine counts alongside paper ballots. The bill died in the Senate.

Many Kansas precincts will have new voting machines by the 2018 election, when we’ll elect a governor, congressmen and other officials. The legislature should take up Clarkson’s cause in next year’s session and ensure we have accurate voting totals – and reliable ways of verifying them.