Osage County officials confim Corbet’s lead over Mah in tight, contested 54th District race

? Officials in one northeast Kansas county certified its results Monday in a close state House race, expanding the Republican challenger’s lead over a Democratic incumbent amid a legal battle over another county’s vote counting.

The Osage County Commission reviewed dozens of provisional ballots and counted 53 with votes for either candidate in the 54th House District, which includes parts of three counties. Afterward, Democratic Rep. Ann Mah of Topeka trailed Republican challenger Ken Corbet, also of Topeka, by 44 votes out of nearly 10,700 cast. The margin previously had been 27 votes, so that Corbet saw a net gain of 17 votes.

Mah filed a successful lawsuit Friday in neighboring Shawnee County to force it to release the names of voters who cast provisional ballots. She and other Democrats are trying to contact them and help them correct potential problems so that their ballots will be counted. She was hoping to pick up enough votes to defeat Corbet, having carried the Shawnee County portion of the district in unofficial results.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach objected to releasing the names and filed his own lawsuit in federal court to block the candidates from using them. He contends that voters’ privacy is at stake, but Mah and other Democrats argue that he’s trying to block her last, slim chance for overcoming Corbet’s lead because she’s a vocal opponent of a law Kobach championed to require voters to show photo identification at the polls. Kobach also backed Corbet.

“We were hoping for a better outcome,” Mah said as she left Osage County Courthouse in Lyndon, about 30 miles south of Topeka.

Corbet carried the smaller portions of the district in neighboring Douglas and Osage counties and hoped to contact voters casting provisional ballots to add to his totals, including in Osage County. More than 200 provisional ballots were cast in the district among the three counties, with more than 100 in Shawnee County and almost 90 in Osage County.

The new tally in the race gives Corbet 5,365 votes after he picked up 35 in Osage County. Mah has 5,321 votes, having gained 18.

Provisional ballots are cast when election workers aren’t sure people are eligible to vote at particular polling places, for reasons including the lack of a proper photo ID, a recent move or, for some women, a name change upon getting married. Each ballot is placed in an envelope and set aside for further review. Counties have until Thursday to certify their results, and Douglas and Shawnee county officials plan to wait until then.

Attorneys representing Corbet and the Republican Party argued that it wouldn’t be fair for voters in Osage County to be denied extra time to correct potential problems with their ballots.

“They’re not going to have the impetus of candidates contacting them to encourage them,” said Caleb Crook, an attorney representing the Republicans.

But the three Osage County Commission members, all Republicans, were put off by the idea of releasing the information, having received advice both from the county attorney and Kobach’s office against doing so.

“What do we have a secret election for, then?” said commission Chairman Carl Meyer. “That’s ridiculous.”

But Mah was comfortable moving ahead in Osage County, and the commission reviewed provisional ballots one by one, a job that became tedious.

“I haven’t had this much fun since I cleaned the hog house out,” said commission member Kenneth Kuykendall, a farmer.

Corbet praised the commissioners for spending nearly six hours on the task.

“You’ve got to be confident,” he said of his lead.

The list of voter names released Friday by Shawnee County to the candidates — and obtained by The Associated Press from a political source — contains 104 names of voters who cast provisional ballots on two pages, in no particular order, with no other information. Douglas County released a list of fewer than 30 names Thursday, before the legal wrangling began.

Hours after Douglas County released its list of names, Kobach’s office advised county election officials Thursday that such disclosures would violate a federal law that says: “Access to information about an individual provisional ballot shall be restricted to the individual who cast the ballot.”

The Shawnee County judge who ruled in Mah’s favor said the law is designed to prevent information about how someone voted from becoming public, allowing their names to be released.

But Kobach said a Sedgwick County judge faced with the same issue Friday refused to order his county to release a list of voter names. He’s still pressing his federal lawsuit, hoping for a hearing Tuesday.

“This is not an issue to be decided county by county,” he said.