Kansas secretary of state convinced complaints about elections drive county clerks to retire
TOPEKA — Secretary of State Scott Schwab said relentless complaints about election security were a disservice to skilled election officials in the state’s 105 counties and was a factor in an exodus of experienced staff.
Schwab, who deflected a Republican primary challenge in 2020 by an election denier, said there was a surge in retirements by county clerks because of static about fairness of elections, fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and natural aging of that workforce. He said departing clerks were doing a solid job preparing their replacements to make the transition as seamless as possible.
“This is where I get frustrated when people attack the election system on Kansas,” he said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “You’re not attacking me. I don’t count votes. I have zero voting machines in our agency. It’s the counties, and they work hard. Sometimes they don’t work for very much money. And you’re attacking their integrity, which I just think is unholy.”
The Kansas secretary of state was required by law to provide management of business filings, but the holder of that statewide elected position was most frequently recognized for oversight of the election process.
Schwab said it would be interesting to see how national candidates and Kansas voters responded to the scheduled GOP and Democratic presidential preference primary in March.
“It’s just going to be fascinating to see the dynamics of who ends up getting in the race and who ends up surviving Super Tuesday to try to win the state,” he said.
How many candidates will pay the $10,000 fee to be on the Kansas ballot? What will the major parties decide in terms of allocating convention delegates? Will partisan voters answer the bell during the primary season?
Gov. Laura Kelly signed the bill authorizing the primary and the 2023 Legislature adopted a budget bill containing $4.7 million to reimburse counties for presidential primary expenditures. The presumption was the governor would endorse funding of the primary after it received bipartisan support in the Legislature.
Schwab said the counties and state election officials would pivot from the November election cycle to the presidential primary. Typically, Kansas has relied on a caucus system with Democrats convening at locations across the state for candidate speeches, debates and a winnowing down of candidates until a winner was declared. The GOP entertained candidate speeches before a simple vote.
“We do take a lot of comfort knowing that both party leaders, who both criticize me and the quality of our elections, now trust us enough to run another election,” Schwab said. “So, we take some comfort in that saying, ‘It just kind of proves we are right. We do run elections very, very well.’”
Schwab said the Legislature passed a bill that sought to address disjointed elements of the state’s election process. Changes dealt with general administration of elections, but touched ideas of transparency and integrity.
He compared portions of old state election law to a disorganized kitchen pantry that should have been refreshed long ago. Provisions removed from statute books this legislative session had been put in place more than a century ago and were no longer relevant, including a requirement adopted because Missouri residents unhappy about the direction of Kansas politics tried to sabotage operations by seizing election workers.
“They passed a law that said, if you go to a poll, and there’s no poll workers, you can elect your own,” he said. “Missouri was kidnapping our poll workers, so we couldn’t have an election.”
Another example was the need to reconcile statutes setting deadlines for school boards to conduct bond issue votes that didn’t give election officials enough time to mail ballots to military personnel who were residents of Kansas.
He said the bill resolved confusion about election recounts that required people to select which counties would be recounted before election officials finished sorting provisional ballots, he said.
Another change: No longer would election staff be responsible for counting votes for Disney cartoon characters and notable people clearly not real candidates in Kansas. Going forward, election officials only have to worry about votes for write-in candidates who signed an affidavit affirming interest in an elective office.
“We were able to kind of comb that together and make it consistent,” Schwab said.
He said routine updating of election law has been complicated the past five years due to contentious demands for action to deal with allegations of voter fraud or voter suppression. It made functional revision of law difficult to get through the Capitol because controversial provisions would inevitably be woven into a basic procedural bill, he said.
Grace period, drop boxes
Schwab said he didn’t have heartburn about Kelly’s veto of a bill that would have eliminated the state’s three-day grace period for accepting mail-in advance ballots postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day.
Kelly rejected Senate Bill 209 that would have cut off acceptance of ballots when polls closed the day of an election. The governor said the grace period was useful to Kansans, especially rural voters relying on the U.S. postal system. The Legislature attempted to override Kelly, but that effort failed.
Schwab said the three-day extension had become an important tool for voters as the post office removed processing facilities from Kansas.
He said a Garden City voter’s ballot placed in the mail would be handled by postal workers in New Mexico. In the city of Liberal, he said, the better option was to use the ballot drop box across the street from the election office.
However, drop boxes have been viewed with skepticism by Kansas legislators convinced election fraud contributed to President Donald Trump’s loss to Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.
“I was such an advocate for drop boxes,” Schwab said. “Liberal, Kansas, is a perfect example. The post office is right across the street from the county courthouse. If you put your … ballot in the blue drop box, your ballot goes to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to hopefully show up across the street. Or just put it in that (election) drop box.”