Some delays expected in reporting of election results because of quantity of mail ballots

photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World File Photo

In this file photo from May 7, 2018, a stack of mail-in ballots sits at the Douglas County Courthouse.

The Kansas secretary of state’s office on Monday warned Kansans that they could expect some delays in the reporting of results from Tuesday’s primary election because of significant increases in requests for mail-in ballots brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the primaries for the 2018 midterms, the last major federal election, the office mailed a total of 51,211 ballots statewide, spokesperson Katie Koupal said. The most recent tally for the Aug. 4 primary election, she said, was 314,984 ballots mailed — a 515% increase.

“We do acknowledge that there are several unique factors created by the pandemic that have not been present in prior elections,” Koupal said in a call with reporters. “Due to enhanced COVID-19 safety precautions and historically high advance voting numbers, we could see slightly delayed election returns (Tuesday) evening.”

That delay could come from the extra time it takes for counties to count the mail-in ballots they’ve already received on election night, but it could also come from mailed ballots coming into local election offices in the days following the election.

Kansas law says that ballots will count as long as they are postmarked on or before election day — in this case, Aug. 4 — and are received by the local election office by 5 p.m. three days following the election — in this case Friday, Aug. 7.

For voters worried that the local post office may not get their ballot delivered in time, they are welcome to hand-deliver their ballot to a local election office, or they can drop it off at any physical polling location in their voting precinct while polls are open Tuesday.

All election results are unofficial until they are later certified by both local and state election boards. All told, this means Kansas voters may need to take any close results on Tuesday night with a grain of salt.

“We believe that close races could fluctuate more than they have in the past just based on the high number of advance by mail ballots,” Koupal said.

As of 8 a.m. Monday, the most recent data Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s office had available, 190,899 mailed ballots had been returned, a rate of 60.6%. Historically, Koupal said, the state sees a return rate of 70 to 80% for advance mail ballots, which means the rate will likely increase by a considerable amount through Monday and Tuesday.

Is Douglas County prepared for increased advance mail voting?

Local election officials in Douglas County could not be reached Monday to answer questions for this article. However, recent data maintained by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission shows that the county is better prepared for an onslaught of advance mail voting than other areas of the United States.

In the 2018 midterms, Douglas County counted and certified 49,772 votes out of the 50,922 total participants in the election, according to national election data. Those votes represented a 62% turnout rate for the county’s then-nearly 80,000 registered voters, and also showed that only 2.3% of votes were not counted during the certification process. This can happen for a variety of reasons, including for people whose name changed due to a marriage or divorce, accidentally voting in the wrong county after moving, voting at the wrong polling location without casting a provisional ballot, and failing to provide a valid photo ID.

Just over 23.5% of the votes in Douglas County — 11,725 — were cast by mail, a rate that election experts with ProPublica’s Electionland project say means the county will be better prepared for the onslaught of mailed ballots for both Tuesday’s election and the general election on Nov. 3.

Areas that already vote by mail at relatively high rates, those experts say, usually have the needed systems in place to handle the extra ballots that will come their way as people try and stay away from physical polling locations during the pandemic.

Of the 11,725 ballots cast by mail in 2018, Douglas County rejected only 98, federal data shows. Only one of those was due to being received after the deadline, four were due to insufficient identification, 20 were due to mismatched signatures, and 73 were due to voters not being registered in the right jurisdiction.

That low of a rejection rate — 0.84% — also shows that the county has properly educated voters on what is required of them to vote by mail and has the systems in place to correct most errors that do arise in people’s ballots during the certification process, according to ProPublica’s Electionland project.

In Monday’s call with reporters, Koupal said the secretary’s office had not heard from any counties concerned about receiving ballots in time to count. Kansas, she said, is a locally controlled state, which means counties have the ability to shift more resources to local post offices in circumstances like these.

In 2020, Douglas County — like the rest of the country — will see a massive influx of voters electing to vote by mail. For Tuesday’s primary alone, the county received 21,157 requests for advance mail ballots — a roughly 80% increase from the number of people who voted by mail in the 2018 midterms.

And for the November election, that number will almost certainly increase if the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t improve, as voter turnout is consistently higher in presidential election years. Douglas County has turned out to vote at rates of 62% in 2018 and 63% in 2016, and if that rate holds, nearly 50,000 people of the county’s 78,838 registered voters will vote in November — over half of whom will do so by mail, recent studies show.

Is mail-in voting safe, and how does it work?

Contrary to recent claims amplified by President Donald Trump, voting by mail is a safe and secure process that years of data show does not lead to any statistically significant fraud. Across the country, including in Kansas, there are a number of protections written into state laws that protect the integrity of each ballot cast.

First, voters have to apply for a mail-in ballot and have their voting registration status — and signature — checked against state voter rolls. In Kansas, part of the application also requires the voter to supply the identification number from a government-issued photo ID.

Once received, local election officials typically process these applications by hand and, once confirmed, mail the voter a ballot using a tracking system where the voter can check the ballot’s location.

After voters make their choices, they seal and sign the envelope before mailing it to the election office using the same tracking system. After the office receives the completed ballot, it is again checked by hand against state records to ensure matching signatures. If the signatures don’t match, they can be challenged and voters can be contacted to confirm the signature’s validity.

That process of confirming ballot legitimacy happens during what is called the canvassing period following elections. Canvassing, Koupal told the Journal-World, is the process of counting ballots and certifying results at both local and state levels, and is where trained officials go through provisional ballots and essentially double check everything.

In a news release Friday, Schwab said Kansas voters should feel safe voting in person because of increased safety measures implemented at polling locations, but said his office’s goal was to protect the security both of ballots cast by mail and in person.

“Our priority has been, and will continue to be, to maintain balance in protecting the health and safety of Kansas voters and election workers while also ensuring the security of Kansas elections,” he said. “If you feel safe going to the grocery store, you should feel safe to vote.”

Schwab said that he expected around 28% of the state’s 1.86 million registered voters to participate in Tuesday’s primary, which would be around 521,000 participants. In 2018, roughly 487,000 voters participated in the August gubernatorial primaries, for a turnout rate of 27%, Schwab’s office said.

It is important to note that 30% of registered voters in Kansas aren’t affiliated with a political party and therefore cannot participate in the primary unless they choose to affiliate with a party at their polling location on election day.

Polls for the primary are open in Douglas County from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Advance ballots can be dropped off at any polling location in a voter’s precinct or at one of the county’s secure drop-off sites, until 7 p.m. Tuesday.

The advance ballot drop-off locations are:

• Douglas County Courthouse, South Parking Lot, 1100 Massachusetts St.

• Douglas County Human Services Building, 2518 Ridge Court.

• Douglas County Fairgrounds, Flory Meeting Hall, 2110 Harper St.

The Journal-World is a partner newsroom in the ProPublica Electionland project, which seeks to more comprehensively cover election administration in the United States.


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