Editorials

Local election officials lack accountability

Shouldn’t voters in the four largest counties have a means to hold accountable their election overseers?
Shouldn’t voters in the four largest counties have a means to hold accountable their election overseers?

An audit showing excessive spending by former Johnson County Election Commissioner Brian Newby is more than a curiosity for the rest of Kansas, because it demonstrates again how unaccountable the top election officials are in the state’s four most populous counties – and because Newby is now drawing fire in his new job as executive director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Voting rights groups have sued Newby for deciding unilaterally in January, without public notice or commissioners’ review, that would-be voters in Kansas, Alabama and Georgia could no longer use the federal voter registration form without complying with their states’ laws requiring proof of U.S. citizenship. That decision delivered a big win to Newby’s former boss, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who had unsuccessfully sought that outcome via the courts.

But flash back to the last five of Newby’s 11 years in the Johnson County job, which were the subject of the “transition audit” revealed to the Johnson County Commission last week. The audit questioned $39,000 in spending on “nonessential” items such as cameras, $1,500 Google Glass smart glasses, and a selfie stick, and noted the 16 laptops, 14 tablets, Apple iWatch and other tech gear in his private office. It said he spent $580 a month on books and subscriptions, and it recommended the county seek $5,478 from Newby for hotel and flight upgrades and other expenses for some of his 45 trips in five years.

According to Associated Press, Newby called the audit “inaccurate, very misleading, very incomplete” and “a political thing” stemming from county commissioners’ lack of authority over the election office.

Under Kansas law, the secretary of state decides who oversees local elections in Johnson, Sedgwick, Wyandotte and Shawnee counties, where local county officials fund the election office’s budget. In the other counties, running elections is among the duties of elected county clerks.

Sedgwick County has had different concerns with its Kobach-appointed election commissioner, Tabitha Lehman, including her use of family and friends to help her run elections and the office’s computer glitches and painfully tardy returns in 2012.

Shouldn’t voters in the four largest counties have a means to hold accountable their election overseers, beyond their votes for secretary of state every four years? And shouldn’t those counties’ officials have some say in their election office’s finances?

Meanwhile, whoever hired Newby to run the EAC might have done more due diligence as to his fiscal management and otherwise.

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