Eight-hour wait? Disenfranchised voters? County should head off potential problems

Sedgwick County election commissioner Tabitha Lehman has asked the county commission for $100,000 to open more polling places and hire more election-day workers.
Sedgwick County election commissioner Tabitha Lehman has asked the county commission for $100,000 to open more polling places and hire more election-day workers. File photo

The election commissioner has gone to Sedgwick County commissioners a second time asking for funding to making voting easier this summer and fall.

Commissioners didn’t heed Tabitha Lehman’s wishes the first time. They should this time to ensure that primary and general elections are run without the problems that have popped up during the decade.

Lehman knows all too well about election-night worries, which is why it’s encouraging that she has been proactive in alerting county officials to what she sees as potential trouble before and on the Aug. 7 and Nov. 6 election days.

In February, commissioners cut $100,000 in funding that would’ve enabled the election office to mail reminders to registered voters about election dates and how to vote early at polling places or by mail.

Those fliers were killed so commissioners could alter the county’s print-shop budget. Normally the fliers are part of the election-office budget, which is controlled by the Secretary of State’s Office. This time, commissioners said the election office should have the same fiscal responsibility as the rest of county government.

Lehman said fliers are the strongest reminder available to voters. In 2016, she said, 50,000 people asked for mail ballots and that if even a quarter of those chose instead to vote on Election Day, “we would be utterly crippled in the 2018 general election.”

On Tuesday, Lehman returned to commissioners with another $100,000 request. This time, the money would be used to open 13 additional voting sites, bringing the countywide total to 86. (The number of sites fell from 208 to 62 in 2006 to come into compliance with federal law making polling locations more accessible to people with disabilities.)

Lehman, with the help of MIT software, identified 16 polling places that are at risk for long lines in both elections this year. The worst was Mulvane First Baptist Church, which she said could develop an eight-hour waiting line if voters refused to give up and leave.

That’s not likely, but Lehman warned of a wait of up to 90 minutes in Mulvane and upwards of 400 voters giving up. That’s far too many residents being disenfranchised in a year when we elect a congressman, governor, other statewide officials and Kansas House members.

Part of the funding request would go to hiring about 380 more poll workers, an increase of more than 50 percent from recent elections.

Commissioners asked County Manager Michael Scholes and his staff to evaluate the recommendation and work to find a solution with Lehman’s office.

Lehman is being proactive with commissioners about encouraging a strong voter turnout, and that’s encouraging. So many parts of the Kansas election law under Secretary of State Kris Kobach — Lehman’s boss — have made it harder for Kansans to register to vote and participate once they show up on election day.

Lehman got off to a rough start after being promoted to Sedgwick County election commissioner in 2011. Her first big election, the 2012 primary, included glitches in new electronic polling books, incorrect totals announced early in the night, and final results not released until 11:15 p.m.

It didn’t get better in the general election, three months later. Final tallies weren’t available until 1:30 a.m., a time so late that Kobach asked for an investigation. User error was the cause, the investigation concluded, and Lehman kept her job. The 2016 election in the county had few problems.

Two years later, Lehman’s repeated requests of the County Commission shouldn’t be ignored. A high-stakes August primary, highlighted by a Republican gubernatorial primary led by Kobach and Gov. Jeff Colyer, is expected to draw a strong turnout. Same with a November general election that will not only choose a governor but Kobach’s replacement.

More polling places and more poll workers are what Lehman’s office needs and Sedgwick County voters deserve.