Archive for Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Committee: Democrat should keep seat in contested race

February 7, 2007


— A Democrat who was declared the winner of a House seat by two votes in GOP-dominated Johnson County should keep his seat, a committee concluded Tuesday.

The election-night victory of Rep. Gene Rardin, D-Overland Park, was certified by local and state officials and confirmed by a Johnson County judge. But Rardin's GOP opponent, John Dennis Kriegshauser, also of Overland Park, had appealed to the House, which is the final judge of elections for its members, and Speaker Melvin Neufeld, R-Ingalls, had appointed a bipartisan committee to review the evidence.

The committee's decision makes it unlikely the House would vote to remove Rardin and seat Kriegshauser.

The committee still must make recommendations in writing to the House, and Chairman Mike O'Neal, R-Hutchinson, said he hopes its report will be ready today, so the chamber can vote Thursday.

Kriegshauser could prevent the first House vote on a contested election in 50 years by withdrawing his challenge to Rardin's victory. Kriegshauser's attorney, former GOP Rep. Eric Carter, said he'd be discussing options with him.

At issue were five ballots out of more than 8,200 cast in the 16th District. The last tally in the race, set by Judge Stephen Tatum, was 4,131 votes for Rardin to 4,129 for Kriegshauser.

Kriegshauser said four of the five ballots reviewed by the committee should not have been counted because they were cast by voters not living in the district. Carter argued that all four were cast for Rardin.

The committee decided it could not say definitively that two of the four voters lived outside the district. Thus, their votes should count.

The committee decided that the other two voters' ballots were illegal but could not definitely determine whether those ballots were cast for Rardin, meaning the tally couldn't be adjusted.

The final disputed ballot belonged to a woman who voted in advance, along with her husband. They put their ballots in the wrong envelopes; the husband was able to correct his mistake in time, but the woman was not.

The judge counted the ballot anyway, including it Kriegshauser's total, based on a sworn statement she signed as to which candidate she supported. The committee decided the envelope containing her ballot should be unsealed and the ballot reviewed before a final tally is set.

"The committee took the cautious approach," Carter said after its meeting. "I think the committee tried to be fair."

Democrats worried that Republicans would use their 78-47 majority to remove Rardin from office, and the House's review of the race threatened to increase partisan tensions and make bipartisan agreement on issues more difficult. Those tensions appeared to be lessening Tuesday.

"We can move on and get the session going," said Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Wichita, the committee's vice chairman.

Republicans had repeatedly argued that they were only reviewing the race because Kriegshauser had appealed the judge's decision to the House.

"It wasn't a frivolous election contest. There were legitimate questions and issues over specific ballots," O'Neal said.

Rardin said he was surprised the committee resolved the issues as quickly as it did. It had until Friday to issue its report.


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