Archive for Sunday, February 19, 2017

Douglas County sheriff and his mother under investigation for voter fraud; case reveals quirk in Kansas voting law

A gathering of stickers along the counter at the Douglas County Courthouse awaited early voters, Nov. 3, 2016.

A gathering of stickers along the counter at the Douglas County Courthouse awaited early voters, Nov. 3, 2016.

February 19, 2017


Sheriff Ken McGovern in the last two elections helped his elderly mother obtain a ballot to vote in Douglas County, despite evidence that his mother lives in a Johnson County nursing home.

A spokesman with the Kansas Secretary of State’s office confirmed that the matter had been forwarded to state prosecutors for review and possible charges.

When questioned by the Journal-World, McGovern confirmed that during the 2016 primary election in August he picked up an advance ballot at the county courthouse for his mother, Lois McGovern. Sheriff McGovern signed a document listing that his mother was registered to vote at 2803 Schwarz Road in Lawrence. County records, however, show that Lois McGovern sold that home more than a year before the primary election. Sheriff McGovern confirmed to the Journal-World that his mother was not living at the house during the primary election.

In the November general election, McGovern again went to pick up an advance ballot for his mother. But this time he faced pushback from a county employee who had knowledge that McGovern’s mother did not live at the Schwarz Road address, a source with knowledge of the incident told the Journal-World. But Sheriff McGovern eventually was allowed to take a ballot to his mother, after her address was changed to that of Sheriff McGovern’s west Lawrence home. McGovern, though, confirmed to the Journal-World that his mother does not live with him.

Sheriff McGovern declined to say where his mother lived, and he refused to confirm that she lives in Douglas County.

“Where she is living doesn’t make a difference,” McGovern said.

The Journal-World interviewed multiple sources who had knowledge of Lois McGovern living in a Johnson County nursing home. When the Journal-World called the nursing home and gave an employee Lois McGovern’s name and room number and asked to be transferred, the employee confirmed that McGovern lived in the facility but was unable to transfer the call. The Journal-World reached out to Lois McGovern for comment through Sheriff McGovern, and she declined to comment for this article.

While the Johnson County address has created questions about Lois McGovern’s ability to vote in a Douglas County election, it is not clear that either the sheriff or his mother violated Kansas voting law, said Bryan Caskey, director of elections for the Kansas secretary of state’s office.

However, the McGovern incident did cause a county resident who was aware of the situation to file two complaints with the secretary of state’s office. Caskey said there were enough questions surrounding the McGovern incident — especially her vote in the primary election — that he had forwarded the complaints to the Kansas secretary of state’s prosecution division for review and possible charges.

Caskey, though, stopped short of saying he thought a violation of the law had occurred. Instead, he said Kansas law is vague on the matter.

In the land of Secretary of State Kris Kobach — one of the nation’s most ardent supporters of voter ID and proof of citizenship laws — it may be surprising that laws are vague on whether you have to live in the county you vote in.

But people who have studied Kansas voter law aren’t surprised. They know of a longtime quirk in Kansas voting law — if you once lived in a Kansas community, there are relatively easy ways to continue voting in the community, even if you haven’t lived there for decades.

“Under the law, you can be absent for 20 or 30 years and still vote,” Caskey said.

Intent to return

Maybe your brother is running for city council in your old hometown that you no longer live in. Kansas law may provide a way to vote for him anyway. The key, election experts say, is that you need to be prepared to utter the phrase “I intend to return.” In other words, even though you don’t live in your old hometown, you need to be able to say that you once did, and you plan to return there someday.

In that situation — as long as the secretary of state doesn’t have evidence that you also are voting in another location — you likely could figure out a way to vote in your old hometown.

How? Kansas voting law has a broad definition of what constitutes residency. In particular, the Kansas law has a phrase that says residence means a place “to which, whenever such person is absent, such person has the intention of returning.”

The law provides no further guidance on what that means. The secretary of state’s Kansas Election Standards book does provide guidance. It notes that residency is not affected by vehicle registration, tax payments, utility hook-ups or the Census Bureau standard of where someone usually sleeps. Instead, the secretary of state’s office said the key piece of advice is this: “The registrant is allowed by law to determine his/her place of residence according to their intent, and it is difficult for another person to disprove it.”

Sherrie L. Riebel, county clerk for Allen County in southeastern Kansas, said “difficult” is the key word. Riebel is active in the Kansas Association of County Clerks, serving as the chair of the committee that watches legislative action on election law. She said the vagueness of the Kansas law is noticed by county clerks across the state.

Riebel said there is not widespread misuse of the “intent to return” clause, but she guessed that every county clerk in the state has probably questioned whether someone is misusing it at one point or another. Riebel said there are situations where the intent to return clause does help resolve what otherwise would be difficult situations. Among them: A retiree who spends part of the year in Kansas and part in Texas; a college student who spends summers in her hometown but the school year in Lawrence; people who are stationed overseas for military or work purposes; and other scenarios.

Some scenarios, however, create questions.

“It is the ones who don’t ever return. It is the ones who have been gone for 20 years but they still stay registered here that really bother me,” Riebel said. “You’ve been gone for 20 years. I’d think you would figure out you’re not going to return.”

What does Riebel do in those situations? She said there’s not much she can do, as long as the voter professes an intention to return.

“We’re not the election police,” she said. “And I don’t have a lie detector test to put them through.”

A ‘cop-out’

On its face, it would seem that registering to vote by using an address of a home that you no longer own and no longer have any legal right to live in would be against the law. Caskey, the secretary of state official, said it does seem to defy common sense.

“Clearly you need to have some ability to return to the location,” Caskey said. “I don’t have a legal right to live at your house, but the law doesn’t spell that out.”

So, is it illegal to register to vote using an address you have no legal right to occupy?

“It is a good question, and one I don’t really have a good answer to,” Caskey said.

Some election experts, though, said they are puzzled by Caskey’s response. Rep. Vic Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Elections Committee, said the allegations against Lois McGovern are a clear-cut violation of voting law.

“That is a cop-out,” Miller, of Topeka, said of Caskey’s response. “I agree that the law is fairly loose. The facts as you presented them to me, they are unambiguous. You can’t just say ‘I intend to return’; otherwise there would be no threshold whatsoever. I don’t believe any judge would rule that is a bona fide residence.”

Rep. Keith Esau, R-Olathe, is the chair of the House Elections Committee. He said there are good reasons for the state law to be written with an “intent to return clause,” citing missionaries and others who may sell their homes to serve overseas for some period of time. But he did say it seemed curious that McGovern wouldn’t use the nursing home as her address.

“That may be stretching it,” Esau said of the McGovern incident, “because you are in the same state, so why don’t you just use that as your residence? That is what most people do.”

Both men said Lois McGovern being registered at her son’s home is more likely to be viewed as legal under the law since she has the ability to actually live at that residence at some point in the future.

Sheriff’s defense

Sheriff McGovern, a Republican who was re-elected in 2016, said he and his mother had no intention of wrongdoing when she registered to vote at an address that she no longer lived at.

When asked why he thought it would be legal for his mother to continue being registered at a house she no longer owned or occupied, McGovern initially responded by saying he discussed the matter with Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew and was assured that it was OK.

But that explanation left questions about why Lois McGovern’s address was changed to the sheriff’s house just days prior to the November general election — despite the fact that Lois McGovern didn’t live at that address either.

When asked to explain, McGovern said that may have been the point that he received guidance from Shew. He said he may not have received any advice from Shew prior to the primary election. He said he didn’t remember whether he talked to Shew about the primary election issue.

Shew said he is certain that he never gave McGovern any advice that it would be permissible for his mother to remain registered at the Schwarz Road house that she had sold. Shew said that Sheriff McGovern asked about the issue just prior to picking up a ballot for his mother for the general election. Shew said he’s not sure what caused the sheriff to raise the question.

A source with knowledge of County Courthouse workings told the Journal-World that McGovern asked about the issue after a county employee confronted him when he tried to pick up a ballot for the general election. The county employee questioned whether Lois McGovern still lived in the county, said the source, who asked to remain anonymous because the source was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

McGovern said he doesn’t recall that confrontation, but also said he could not recall what led him to change his mother’s address to his home.

McGovern said he is now confident that his mother is complying with the law. He said that although his mother doesn’t live with him currently, the intention is for his mother to leave the nursing home and move into his home at some point in the future.

McGovern said he also wasn’t trying to evade voter law in anything that he did.

“My mom wanted to vote, and I tried to help her vote,” he said.

McGovern became involved in the issue because he was allowed to pick up a ballot for his mother under a clause that allows a third party to receive a ballot for people who are sick or disabled. Miller, who as an attorney has litigated several election law cases, said Sheriff McGovern could face some legal issues related to his involvement. He said that likely would hinge on whether Sheriff McGovern ever made any false statements about where his mother lived, or whether people believed he may have violated the moral turpitude standards expected of a sheriff.

Double standard?

The secretary of state’s prosecution division is now reviewing the case for possible charges, but it is not clear that Kobach’s office was working on the case prior to the Journal-World contacting the office.

A Douglas County resident filed two complaints about the McGovern incidents: one was filed in early September after the primary election, and the second was filed in late October before the general election. The complainant confirmed that the secretary of state’s office never reached out to get additional information about the case.

County Clerk Shew, a Lawrence Democrat, also said he did not hear from the secretary of state’s office about the complaints. He said that is unusual, because in past instances of complaints, the secretary of state’s office has contacted him early in the process to confirm basic information about the voter’s registration and other details.

Caskey, the election official with Kobach’s office, said he didn’t have information readily available on when the case was forwarded to prosecutors.

Some Kobach opponents expressed concern that Kobach may be taking these types of cases less seriously than he takes proof of citizenship cases. Nationally, Kobach — a prominent Republican who was considered for positions in the Trump administration — has become one of the most enthusiastic supporters of laws requiring people to show proof of citizenship before they can register to vote.

Doug Bonney, legal director for the ACLU of Kansas, said it was “peculiar” that Kobach wasn’t providing at least as much attention to this issue as he was to the proof of citizenship issue.

“To be this loosey-goosey on the definition of residency, and then insist that people — who you don’t have any real reason to believe are illegal — to come up with documents is just ridiculous,” said Bonney, who has been part of the legal team fighting some of Kobach’s proof-of-citizenship laws.

Caskey said there is a reason the office hasn’t focused on the issue and why it doesn’t plan to propose any changes to the residency definition this legislative session.

“There has not been a clear answer that is better,” Caskey said. “It is difficult to come up with a definition that accounts for every situation that could occur with residency.”

Caskey said to try to do so could easily result in government overreach.

“It is very difficult for government to say this is your intent,” Caskey said. “Government doesn’t know that better than you.”

Rep. Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Elections Committee, agreed that it may be difficult to change the law to account for every situation. Instead, he said the secretary of state just needs to be committed to enforcing the law on the books. At the urging of Kobach in 2015, lawmakers granted the secretary of state’s office prosecutorial powers on voter fraud issues.

Miller said the McGovern case will provide a clue into whether Kobach intends to use the power in an even-handed manner.

“There is no reason that case shouldn’t have a formal investigation, and if he doesn’t charge her, he should explain why,” Miller said. “This is exactly what he asked for. There are people who suspect he will pick and choose who he charges.”

Caskey said there is no timeline on when a charging decision will be made in the case.


Richard Heckler 1 year, 3 months ago

The person in question did not vote twice = only in Douglas County.

Ken Lassman 1 year, 3 months ago

I say leave Lois alone. She clearly is a citizen, a Kansan, and a very long Douglas Countian, is not voting elsewhere and her son has a house where she could live in west Lawrence. The fact that she rents a room in a nursing home one county to the east does not preclude her from returning to the county where her son has been sheriff, where she knows the candidates and the issues way better than in the county she happens to be living right now. I like the statement that says that the Government does not know better than you on this matter, and I suspect that Ken might even be able to produce a cemetery plot in our county that would put the issue of permanent residence to rest for good.

Once again, the voter fraud issue is framed in a way irrelevant to the average citizen, who does not see any indication of massive undocumented workers voting and swaying elections, vast numbers of people stuffing ballots in two venues, or now, nursing home blocks swaying elections in other counties. The really big issue has always been an ineffective way to register voters as soon as they are eligible to vote and getting them to vote all their lives. Until we get a Secretary of State who is more interested in getting entire communities registered and voting, we will be left with self serving political hacks dreaming of ways to bias the voting electorate to favor their party. The fact that Kobach has made this his primary focus is disgusting to most Kansans and I hope we vote him out on a rail the next chance we get.

Don Brennaman 1 year, 3 months ago

So, if I own homes in 2 different counties, I have to choose which county to vote out those raising my taxes?

Charles L. Bloss, Jr. 1 year, 3 months ago

I have great faith in our Sheriff. I do not think he intentionally did anything wrong in helping his Mom vote. He even asked about it from the county clerk. I would think your newspaper could find something else to do instead of reporting this. I have faith that when the dust settles on this, our Sheriff will be found not guilty. I am on the side of Sheriff McGovern on this one. He has and will continue to do a good job for us.

MerriAnnie Smith 1 year, 3 months ago

I might agree with you, Charles, but the fact that he's a good worker doesn't allow him to do anything illegal... IF it were illegal.

Someone below, though, doesn't agree with you that he does a good job.

Good thing we don't all have to agree he does a good job in order for him to do something shady and get away with it.

Cadence Wilson 1 year, 3 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Charles Jones 1 year, 3 months ago

I'm a lifelong Democrat. But this article is just plain silly. A nutshell summary. Sheriff nice to his mother. No harm cited. No laws broken. One of Topeka's sleazier pols (Vic Miller) attempts to make cheap political points (check him out at I've long admired Chad Lawhorn. But if the LJW wants to dedicate this much type to scandal. I'm sure we can come up with something better. Something that actually matters.

Jennifer Harrison 1 year, 3 months ago

This article does not surprise me at all Charles. It appears the Journal World is going out of their way to slam members of the law-enforcement community on a daily basis. There is an article about the Lawrence Police Department that appeared in social media this week and has made its way around the world to include several major news networks. Do you think the Journal World covered the story, not at all. Why not, because it was positive!!

Chad Lawhorn 1 year, 3 months ago

Jennifer: Our decision to not report on the event you are referencing was based on our guidelines for reporting on suicides and attempted suicides. Local experts in the suicide prevention field have urged us to be cautious and thoughtful in how we report on suicides and attempted suicides. Thanks, Chad Lawhorn, editor.

Jennifer Harrison 1 year, 3 months ago

If that is the case, then why do you carry stories year after year during suicide prevention week interviewing families affected by suicide. That's a "cop out" and you know it. Suicide is not something we put in the closet. We need to have an open discussion as a community about the effects of suicide and how community members can help one another.

Cadence Wilson 1 year, 3 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Bob Forer 1 year, 3 months ago

A relatively benign mistake, with really no harm caused. "Funny" that of the handful of voter fraud investigations, most of them have involved Kansas Republicans. I am not suggesting that Republicans are any more prone to illegal activity than Democrats of Independents. Instead, it demonstrates the absurdity of our draconian voter laws which Kobach persists in pushing.

The only real criminal here is Kobach.

Carol Bowen 1 year, 3 months ago

"However, the McGovern incident did cause a county resident who was aware of the situation to file two complaints with the secretary of state’s office. "

What has Kansas become? Now, we turn each other in for nonsensical reasons? It's like watching an old Gestapo movie. If I were in a nursing home, I would want to vote in a community I am familiar with, not the nursing home's community.

None of the incidents that we've read about so far come close to the illegal voting immigrant rationale. Why is it we need voter ID? Looks to me that we are wasting time and money on a problem that may or may not exist.

Chad, How about an article on the voter ID effort - it's purpose, the actual law, and outcomes?

Joe Blackford II 1 year, 3 months ago

IMHO, the "intent to return" & "Laissez-faire" are bedrock Republican principles in Kansas. How else can we view Senators Bob Dole & Pat Roberts?

Carol Bowen 1 year, 3 months ago

I thought about that too. I was wondering if Pat Roberts voted in Kansas or at home in Virginia.

MerriAnnie Smith 1 year, 3 months ago

While I think it's funny haha that every case of shady voting except one were Republicans. Must be grinding old Kobach's guts....

Aren't sheriffs elected? And wouldn't his mother want to vote for (or against) her son? Or wouldn't HE want her to vote for him. Therefore he's found a way to make that happen.

It's just one vote. Who cares?

And it's not like she's voting twice or in two different places.

I disagree with some who think this should not have made the news. Of course, it should. Voter fraud is a UUUUGE topic of concern in this state. Kobach made it that way.

And I want to know of every single little fraudish thing that happens in that regard, so someday it will sink in to the Republicans that, were there to be fraud, it would not be Democrats doing it.

Linda Aikins 1 year, 3 months ago

I love that he helps his mother vote. I seriously doubt she also votes in Johnson County and she unarguably has interest the n Douglas County. I hope she can return some day and should be able to vote here if that is the intent. So proud of her for still voting. I support the Sheriff and his being a good and thoughtful son. I hope all goes well on this so they can continue this. Go Lois!

Paulette Teague 1 year, 3 months ago

Lois paid taxes on the house at 2803 Schwartz Rd until July 2015 and Ken and Becki have planned to bring Lois home to their house in Lawrence if possible. Plus they received her mail from Schwartz's. I know this because my husband and I bought the house from Lois. Ken and his sister Kathy have power of attorney for their mother. This is probably to much information to give out, but I just wanted everyone to know Ken never intended to do anything wrong. Ken and Becki were and are helping Lois through this difficult time just like we all would do for our parents.

Carol Bowen 1 year, 3 months ago

Taking care of an ailing family member is not easy. There's stress, time constraints, logistics, and much more. I am sorry the sheriff has to deal with this ridiculous situation. His mother should be able to vote in her community where she lived and knows what she is voting for.

Cadence Wilson 1 year, 3 months ago

Well, I guess only people that sympathize with the sheriff are allowed to post on this article, as both of my responses have been removed. He is no victim. Who actually thinks his mother even saw this ballot? He probably filled it out himself, because as the above person said they have power of attorney, which likely means she lacks the mental faculties to do such things. Who knows. Either way, this guy signed an official document that said his mother lives at an address which she does live at. He's an elected official, he should have known better. No harm? Likely. But, is what he did illegal? Yes. He's the sheriff for crying out loud, he should have enough sense to not do something g so foolish.

Matt Daigh 1 year, 3 months ago

Perhaps because your comments were libelous and the LJW didn't want to get dragged into court if the sheriff were to sue you.

Cadence Wilson 1 year, 3 months ago

I can assure you nothing I said was libel. I challenge anyone to force the issue and it will be proven otherwise (which is why it would never be challenged in the first place.) My uncle was a deputy with him and I personally know two current deputies who serve under him and a third that used to. There will be no libel suits, GUARANTEED. I have no problem naming names on a public forum...who wants to force it?

MerriAnnie Smith 1 year, 3 months ago

Be careful. You could be hurting the innocent people you'd be quoting. Even if it's true.

Sandi Yeakel 1 year, 3 months ago

His Mother, Lois is mentally very sharp. Investigate before you start assuming

Carol Bowen 1 year, 3 months ago

It's good to know that common decency is still common.

Richard Quinlan 1 year, 3 months ago

Being in a similar situation caring for our mom with alzheimers and phyical issues the situations can change for the better or worse in a short period of time making taking care of some of the residency issues a bit complicated. Weve had our mom home , independent living , assisted care , rehab , and back home again in the course of a year . In the big picture does her voting in Douglas County make any difference. Theres no intent to do anything illegal.

If our AttorneyGeneral chooses to move forward on this he should also be charged with perjury for his blatant attempts to circumvent our zoning laws and wield influence over our county officials. Whats fair is fair.

Sandi Yeakel 1 year, 3 months ago

This comment was removed by the site staff for violation of the usage agreement.

Sandi Yeakel 1 year, 3 months ago

Can you please explain to me why my comment was deleted?

Cadence Wilson 1 year, 3 months ago

Ask Matt Daigh, he's the expert on comment removal...

Sandi Yeakel 1 year, 3 months ago

Thank you for the explanation. Made sense. I appreciate you taking the time to contact me. LJWorld.

Charlie Dominguez 1 year, 3 months ago

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