Kansas officials express confidence in election, as lawmakers propose some changes to voting laws

photo by: Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector

Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, recently filed two bills seeking to overturn election laws proposed by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. He is pictured Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, at the Statehouse in Topeka.

Topeka — Two months after a record-breaking general election, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab told state lawmakers that he was confident the election was free and fair, but that hasn’t stopped lawmakers from both parties from introducing new election-related legislation.

In November, 1,373,125 Kansans, or 70.9% of Kansas voters, cast ballots, compared to 1,225,667, or 67.4%, in the 2016 general election. At a recent briefing with the Kansas House committee that oversees elections, Schwab said the reason the count went so smoothly was that the state already had voting laws in place that worked well.

Schwab credited the Legislature with passing laws that allowed many methods to easily cast a ballot — by mail or in person, in advance or on Election Day. He said that except for minor confusion caused by an increase in third parties mailing advance ballot applications, the 2020 general election was free of issues.

“I don’t know how Kansas could do it better,” he said. “We have a lot of my colleagues across the country looking at the way we do things and how they can implement it, so they don’t have the frustrations that some states have.”

But some lawmakers think the system still needs some tweaking. One Republican senator wants new rules for mail ballots and voting machines, and a Democratic representative is hoping to reverse legislation that was backed by Schwab’s predecessor, Kris Kobach.

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At the briefing with the House committee, Schwab tipped his hat to poll workers for streamlining an election with record turnout despite the hectic nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. And several lawmakers expressed confidence in the Kansas election and cautioned against making changes to the system that was already in place.

Bryan Caskey, the state elections director, walked legislators through the process by which results were certified. A postelection audit that used a random selection of precincts returned nothing of concern, he said.

“We ordered each county to manually count by hand the election results and compare those with the machine tally,” Caskey said. “I’m happy to report that in all 105 counties, every ballot was accounted for.”

One representative, Ness City Republican Tatum Lee-Hahn, questioned the reliability of Dominion voting machines. Dominion software has been the subject of baseless claims of fraud from Republican legislators across the country.Twelve Kansas counties use these machines, Schwab said.

Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat, joked about the implications of Lee-Hahn’s question: “As to the 12 counties that used Dominion software, I assume those are all counties Joe Biden won?”

“Actually, no,” Schwab said.

“So, they screwed up somehow?” Miller said.

Joking aside, Miller thanked Schwab for putting together a reliable election in a difficult year.

“Nowhere did I discover anything but absolute integrity and proficiency,” Miller said, adding he felt election policy in Kansas was strong.

Shortly after Miller spoke, new Rep. Pat Proctor, a Fort Leavenworth Republican, urged careful consideration before any future election policy was passed.

“I’d like to associate myself with something (Miller) said about being cautious when we are tinkering with election law,” Proctor said.

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Despite Schwab’s confidence in the current process, lawmakers from both parties have proposed new election-related legislation.

Sen Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, pre-filed a bill that would make it a crime to alter or backdate the postmark of an advance mail ballot. Hilderbrand said his proposal was born from concerns he had heard from the public.

“You always have people with concerns about the mail-in ballot being backdated, so I got to looking, and there’s nothing that says you can’t do it in the state of Kansas,” Hilderbrand said. “So, I put that in there.”

Violations would result in a level 9 felony under a Kansas statute on by-mail voting.

In addition, Hilderbrand previously said that he planned to introduce legislation that would ban county officials from using electronic voting machines that do not provide a paper trail. Four counties still use these so-called direct-recording electronic machines, or DREs, although a law passed in 2018 restricts new purchases to models that provide a paper printout of each ballot cast.

On the other side of the aisle, Democratic Rep. John Carmichael of Wichita filed three election-centered bills, two of which seek to reverse legislation championed by former Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

The first would remove the authority of the secretary of state to prosecute election crimes. Kansas is the only state where the chief election officer wields that power.

Kobach was granted the power in 2015 after claiming that county attorneys were ignoring election fraud. He said giving his office the power of prosecution was key to stopping what he alleged was widespread fraudulent voting by undocumented immigrants. However, none of the people prosecuted by Kobach’s office were undocumented immigrants.

“It turned out the majority of the people he prosecuted turned out to be elderly Republicans who made simple, foolish mistakes,” Carmichael said. “Trained professional prosecutors ought to be making charging decisions and pursuing claims of election fraud, rather than a secretary of state.”

Schwab and Attorney General Derek Schmidt have both recommended that the law be repealed.

The second measure that Carmichael has introduced would decrease the penalties for several voting crimes that Kobach lobbied to have increased.

“All this bill does is take the law back, as far as the penalties are concerned, to what it was before Kris Kobach stuck his nose in it,” Carmichael said. “These bills are trying to reestablish the status quo, which has served our state well for decades.”

One other proposal by Carmichael would speed up the implementation of a law allowing Sedgwick County residents to vote at any polling place in their county instead of just at their assigned precinct.

The law was passed in 2019, but no changes have been implemented yet. Carmichael said that was because the current law dictated that Schwab would have to adopt the rules and regulations of the “vote anywhere law” before it could become practice.

Schwab, however, wants the changes to be put into place during an odd-numbered year, and he wants election officials to provide six months of advance notice before the changes take effect. That leaves 2023 as the earliest possible option. Those conditions are currently undergoing a 60-day public comment period and will then be subject to a public hearing before being finalized.

Carmichael accused Schwab of planning this process to delay the new law as long as possible.

The bill that Carmichael is now proposing is almost identical to the current law, with one minor amendment: it would force the county election commissioner to allow this method of voting regardless of any rules and regulations.

Carmichael isn’t confident his bills will get much traction.

“I’ve been in the Legislature for eight years. I’ve had one bill pass that had my name on it that was truly a serious bill rather than a recognition,” Carmichael said. “So, realistically, do I expect these bills to become law with my name on it? Not in this Republican-dominated Legislature.”

Noah Taborda is a reporter for Kansas Reflector.


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