Counting your vote in Kansas sometimes depends on where you live

photo by: AP Photo/John Hanna

Brant Laue, left, attorney for the Kansas lieutenant governor's office, and Eric Rucker, right, assistant secretary of state, ponder a legal challenge to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach's right to be listed on the ballot as the GOP nominee for governor on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, in Topeka. Laue and Rucker were serving as members of the State Objections Board, which rejected the challenge.

TOPEKA – When Kansas voters cast their ballots, the chances that their votes will be counted may depend on which county they live in, especially if they opt to cast their ballots by mail.

That’s because different counties use different standards to decide whether a ballot should be counted.

The issue of election standards came up Monday at a meeting of the State Objections Board, where Topeka resident Davis Hammet objected to Republican Kris Kobach being declared the winner of the Aug. 7 GOP primary for governor.

Hammet’s objections weren’t about Kobach’s candidacy specifically but about how the election was administered overall and how the lack of consistent standards could have influenced the outcome of that close race.

Kobach won that primary over incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer by a mere 343 votes out of more than 317,000 ballots cast, a margin of 0.1 percent.

During his presentation, Hammet noted that Johnson County rejected 153 advance mail-in ballots because the signature on the envelope used to mail the ballot back to the county did not match the voter’s signature on file in the county election office.

By contrast, he said, no ballots in Shawnee were rejected because of mismatched signatures.

“This means either Johnson County erroneously rejected these ballots, or there is massive voter fraud in Johnson County,” Hammet told the board. “If the board rules that my objection is wrong and that Johnson County’s rejection is correct, then, given the discrepancy between Johnson County and Shawnee County, it can reasonably be presumed that Shawnee County and other counties improperly allowed fraudulent votes.”

Hammet also pointed out that there is no law in Kansas requiring county officials to verify signatures when voters mail back their ballots. They are only required to do so when the voter fills out a form requesting an advance ballot by mail.

That was an issue that the Colyer campaign raised after the primary when it first learned that Johnson County intended to reject ballots because of mismatched signatures.

In a letter to Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker’s office, Edward Greim, an attorney for the Colyer campaign, said that when mismatched signatures do occur, county election officials are supposed to contact the voter to give him or her a chance to resolve any problem, something many have said did not happen in Johnson County.

“Because this requirement could yield a severe result – that is, a Kansas voter could find it impossible to receive and cast an advance ballot solely on the judgment of an election worker in reading a signature – Kansas provides a process that gives voters ample opportunity to cure any non-matching signature,” Greim wrote.

Metsker did not respond to a request for comment.

Greim’s letter was dated Aug. 14, the day Johnson County was finalizing its canvass of the primary votes. Later that day, Colyer announced that he would not challenge the results or ask for a recount, but instead conceded the race to Kobach.

The Objections Board rejected the argument that county officials should not verify ballot signatures. Deputy Secretary of State Eric Rucker said that while the law does not require verifying signatures on advance ballot envelopes, it does say election officers have a duty to challenge ballots when there is reason to believe the people casting them are not who they say they are, and a mismatched signature can be evidence of that.

Shawnee County Election Commissioner Andrew Howell confirmed in an interview that his office did not reject any ballots because of mismatched signatures. But he said that was unusual because typically he sees at least a few in each election.

He added, however, that deciding whether to count a ballot is often a judgment call that is left to local officials.

“Anytime the law leaves it open for interpretation, everybody does the best they can,” Howell said. “We’re always left with the challenge of trying to make a reasonable determination.”

Howell said Shawnee County also tries to contact voters if there is a problem with a ballot before deciding to reject it.

“We spend a lot of time calling, writing, emailing,” he said.

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said in a separate interview that no ballots were rejected for mismatched signatures in Douglas County. But he said his office often sends “runners” to go to the voters’ homes to clear up any problems with their ballots.

“There’s nothing in the statute that says we have to reach out to the voter. That’s a decision we make,” Shew said.

In his objection, Hammet also argued that unaffiliated voters were treated differently in the primary depending on which county they voted in.

Under state law, unaffiliated voters are allowed to cast ballots at the polls if they fill out a form declaring a party affiliation. But Hammet said when those voters failed to do so, some counties accepted their request for a ballot as indication of their intent to affiliate, while in other counties those ballots were rejected.

Attorney Brant Laue, who served on the board in place of Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann, said he believed Hammet had raised issues that were appropriate for the Legislature to resolve but that they were not issues for the Objections Board to decide.

But Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, an attorney who often frequently handles election contests on behalf of Democratic candidates, said he thinks they are administrative issues that should be addressed by the secretary of state’s office.

“They’re the administrator of elections, and a lot of these issues that came up are administrative questions,” Miller said.

Shew, however, said it could be difficult to impose uniform standards on all counties, especially when it comes to contacting voters to clear up issues with their ballots.

“That’s up to the Legislature to discuss,” he said. “For some counties, there are resource issues.”

Howell also said he wasn’t sure whether imposing uniform standards on all counties would be helpful.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” he said. “Too much subscription takes away from judgment calls, and a lot of times you need to make judgment calls. On the other hand, it would be helpful to be super clear what to count and not to count.”


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