Editorial: Election accountability

A system that would make election commissioners in the state’s four largest counties more responsible to their local constituents makes some sense.

A report released last week about serious problems Sedgwick County experienced during the November elections may bolster the argument for having county commissioners, rather than the Kansas secretary of state, appoint top election officials in the state’s largest counties.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach announced Friday that his office had completed its investigation of why Nov. 6 election results were delayed for hours at the Sedgwick County election office in Wichita. Kobach determined that insufficient training on the vote-counting software caused workers in the office to report early returns from advance and absentee ballots as the full and final count. He also noted that, although similar problems had occurred during the Aug. 6 primary, “sufficient steps were not taken” to identify and correct the problems.

Kobach’s recommendation was that Sedgwick County increase the number of employees at the election office and provide intensive training for those employees in how to use the vote-counting software. Money for that additional staff and training will have to be provided through the Sedgwick County budget, which presents an interesting connection to legislation that Democratic leaders say they will propose in the upcoming session.

Currently, elected county clerks run elections in 101 of the state’s 105 counties. In the state’s four largest counties — Sedgwick, Johnson, Wyandotte and Shawnee — elections are run by election commissioners appointed by the secretary of state. The purpose of the law probably was to ensure that elections in the largest counties are run in a professional and efficient manner. The downside to the system, however, is that it makes election commissioners in those counties less responsible to the local voters and county commissioners who fund their operations and depend on them to run their elections. The legislation proposed by Senate Majority Leader Anthony Hensley would require county commissioners in those counties to hire their own election commissioners and address all problems arising from the general election.

Since he took office in 2010, Kobach has appointed two election commissioners: one in Sedgwick County and one in Shawnee County. It may be simply coincidence, but both of those counties had serious election problems this year. Shawnee County had a significant dispute after a number of Topeka voters received the wrong ballots during the August primary.

This year could have been an aberration, but the fact remains that election commissioners hired by elected county commissioners would be more accountable to the officials and voters most affected by the work they do. The secretary of state may be unhappy about election glitches, but no one is more unhappy than county commissioners and voters who are concerned and embarrassed by debacles like the one that occurred in Wichita this year.

Clarification:Thursday’s editorial noted that since taking office in 2010, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach had appointed election commissioners in Sedgwick and Shawnee counties, and both counties experienced election problems this year. Shawnee County Election Commissioner Andrew Howell was appointed in September 2012, after the August primary in which a number of voters received incorrect ballots.