A third of Kansas election officials have quit because of harassment and conspiracy theories
photo by: Dylan Lysen/Kansas News Service
LAWRENCE — Democratic Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew spent weeks preparing volunteers to serve at polling places for the recent local elections in Kansas.
At the county’s election offices in Lawrence, about a dozen people gathered to get up to speed. Some of the volunteers were experienced poll workers who had served in several elections before, while others were newcomers this year.
While Shew focused on what the volunteers might encounter this year, he also hinted at what they should know for the elections in 2024 — the first presidential election since the ultra-contentious 2020 vote.
“So in the smaller elections,” Shew said to the poll workers, “please continue to be as sharp as you will be a year from now.”
Making sure the poll workers do everything right is always important for conducting a safe and secure election, but next year their actions will be under a microscope. After the 2020 election, Republican President Donald Trump repeatedly pushed false claims that voter fraud cost him reelection.
That’s led to state lawmakers and the public scrutinizing the security of elections. And that’s fueling a huge turnover — 35 of the state’s 109 officials have quit since 2020.
The Kansas Legislature’s Special Committee on Elections recently held hearings where advocates for election security changes argued the state’s voting systems are not safe. But it included people lining up to share dubious claims.
Republican Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho, who serves as a legislative liaison for the Kansas County Clerks and Election Officials Association, chose not to participate in the hearings. He said the committee was only focusing on disinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories.
“I still haven’t seen any evidence,” Piepho said, “from any of these groups that anything that they’re theorizing has actually happened.”
Additionally, Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab has repeatedly said Kansas elections are safe and secure despite the voter fraud claims from outside groups.
Liz Howard, deputy director for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and a former election official in Virginia, said the scrutiny may be causing additional stress to public officials who play a very important role in American democracy. They have no choice but to be ready for 2024.
“Election officials can’t get extensions,” Howard said. “Election Day is coming and they must prepare for it. There are no excuses.”
Shortly after the 2020 election, Douglas County’s deputy clerk who helped with elections left the job. Since then, Shew has had three different deputy clerks.
He said the mass resignation of election workers is partly spurred by the constant criticism over voting security, despite no evidence of widespread fraud.
Shew said the 2020 election was difficult because it occurred at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Then the country saw a record turnout for a presidential election. He said it was traumatic because election officials felt they were putting their lives on the line.
“And then the response to that was to question and vilify all of us,” Shew said.
Shew said the vilification continues with the Legislature’s ongoing hearings on election security and constant criticism from the public, local officials and state lawmakers.
The turnover in Kansas is on par with a national trend. In some states, more than half of their county election officials have changed since 2020.
Even smaller counties in Kansas are facing the same public scrutiny. Republican Hodgeman County Clerk Sarah Rains said her county of just 1,700 people is struggling to fill volunteer poll working positions.
While she supports ensuring election security, she’s worried conspiracy theories may be scaring people away from volunteering.
“People kind of want to steer clear from it,” Rains said, “and just cast their ballot and be done.”
The ongoing scrutiny may be fueling the anger that’s pointed at election officials. A Brennan Center for Justice survey found that 30% of election officials in the U.S. have personally been harassed, threatened or abused for doing their job.
Howard said those kinds of stresses threaten the state’s ability to run an election.
“Our election officials are critical to our democracy,” Howard said. “They do incredible jobs under often very challenging circumstances.”
Despite a lack of evidence, Republican legislators continue to beat the drum about election security at the Statehouse in Topeka.
During the recent hearings, some focused on conspiracy theories, like a video allegedly showing Iranians hacking election systems. But the Associated Press reported last year that federal investigators found the video was fake.
Still, Kansas lawmakers argue changes may be needed to ensure voters trust the results. Republican state Rep. Pat Proctor said during the recent hearing that some Kansans tell him they don’t want to vote because they think elections are rigged.
“That is an existential threat to our democracy,” Proctor said.
Additionally, a state audit earlier this year found some deficiencies in election security measures. But it showed larger counties have better election security in place than smaller counties.
The audit noted that the secretary of state’s staff, which oversees elections in Kansas, agreed with the recommendations, and some efforts are underway.
Additionally, some of the largest counties in the state recently had the opportunity to show their work.
After the 2022 primary election when Kansas voters overwhelmingly defeated a state constitutional amendment that would have removed the right to an abortion in Kansas, an anti-abortion activist demanded a recount in nine counties.
After hand-counting more than 550,000 ballots, only about 60 votes were changed. That’s about 0.01% of the ballots.
“For us, the hand count was huge,” Shew said. “We showed that we were right.”
Looking to 2024
Regardless of turnover and changes to state law, election officials have no choice but to be ready for 2024. Piepho in Harvey County said no amount of stress, county clerk turnover or other issues will stop it.
Some of the election leaders are taking measures to be prepared. Counties are recruiting high school students to volunteer at polls to fill gaps and focusing on mental health resources to help election workers deal with stress.
“We all have a hard deadline,” Piepho said, “and we historically have always gotten it done.”
— Dylan Lysen reports for Kansas News Service.