Kansas voters pivot to advance by-mail voting amid COVID-19

Kansas election offices have been flooded with advance voting ballots as COVID-19 and competitive races prompted people to express themselves in a safely before Election Day on Tuesday. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas election offices have been flooded with advance voting ballots as COVID-19 and competitive races prompted people to express themselves in a safely before Election Day on Tuesday. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Six times the number of advance by-mail ballots have been returned to local election offices in Kansas compared to the 2016 and 2018 primary elections with the surge in popularity tied to competitive races and the pandemic.

Secretary of State Scott Schwab, who serves as the state’s top elections officer, said 159,000 voters had submitted advance ballots by mail. That compared to 26,917 two years ago in the primary and 26,795 four years ago in the summer election. There has been a narrow partisan split in the returns: Democrats, 81,208; Republicans, 77,372; Libertarian, nine.

“Despite the ongoing pandemic, we are pleased with the number of Kansas voters who have exercised their right to vote through advance by mail ballots and advance in-person voting,” Schwab said. “We encourage those who have not voted to do so on Tuesday.”

As of Friday, 314,788 advance mail-in ballots had been sent to Kansans. The interest among potential voters vastly exceeded request totals from the previous two primary elections, with 51,211 forwarded in the same period in 2018 and 53,387 in 2016.

Schwab predicted 28 percent of 1.8 million registered Kansas voters would take part in the primary. In 2018, 27 percent or 487,000 voted in the primary. His prediction was based on historical turnout data, advance voting figures, registered voters in Kansas and competitive races capable of driving turnout. The secretary of state’s office said the pandemic created unique conditions not present in prior elections.

Due to enhanced COVID-19 safety precautions and historically high advance voting numbers, election returns may be delayed Tuesday evening of the primary election. Voters have been asked to resolve intense GOP primary elections for U.S. Senate and three of four U.S. House districts, in addition to hundreds of statehouse and local election contests.

 

The county counting

Despite a record number of mail-in ballot requests, Johnson County election commissioner Connie Schmidt said pre-emptive measures by the election office has given staff time to process the votes. An application for a mail-in ballot was sent to every voter in that county for the first time, Schmidt said.

“It was sort of our way of taking control of the potential of having many people wanting to vote by mail,” she said. “Those started coming back to our office around the first of June so we’ve had plenty of time built-in to process the number of ballots.”

Johnson County distributed 106,000 ballots and received about 70,000 back. State law permits county election officials to scan the ballots in advance, but not tabulate those results until polling stations close at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

In Finney County, election officer Dori Munyan said 282 of the 457 mail-in ballots sent to potential voters were put through counters. In the 2016 primary election, Munyan said, Finney County only received 100 mail-in ballots. In 2018, they received 84.

Jamie Doss, Saline county clerk, said they’ve been having an advanced-mail review board come in daily to process the ballots as they came. The county mailed 4,891 advanced ballots to constituents and received 3,328 in return, which was three times the normal volume.

“We brought in some extra poll workers to help with the process of getting the mail out and receiving it back,” Doss said. “Hopefully by 7 p.m. or shortly after we will have a count on our advanced ballots.”

Wyandotte County election commissioner Bruce Newby didn’t expect problems processing the flood of primary votes. Typically, the county receives around 5,000 mail-in ballot requests, but forwarded more than 11,600 to voters for the August election. On Monday, he said 7,700 had been returned. Work on other mail-in votes for school bonds, for example, have given his staff a comfort level with advanced voting.

“Voting by mail is a piece of cake for us,” Newby said. “It would take an astronomical number of votes for us to start having any problems.”

In Douglas County, election commissioner Jamie Shew said nearly 12,000 of the 21,000 advanced ballots had been returned. The record total of advance mail voting was in November 2018 with about 13,000 ballots, and Shew expected to surpass that figure due to keen interest in a handful of contested elections and apprehension about entering polling stations during the pandemic.

“This is an election where nothing is as expected,” he said.

Advance by mail ballots must be postmarked on or before the date of the election and received in the local election office by 5:00 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7. After the initial counts on Tuesday, election officials will prepare revised totals Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

 

In-person advance

Schwab said Kansans interested in advance voting could do so in person until noon Monday. As of Friday, he said, 30,762 people had taken advantage of that option. More than two-thirds of those voters were Republicans. In 2018, a presidential election year, 40,406 advance in-person ballots were cast. The figure for the 2016 primary election was 28,452.

“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. If you feel safe going to the grocery store, you should feel safe to vote,” Schwab said.

In light of COVID-19, he said Kansas voters Tuesday should follow safety protocols recommended by health professionals.

He said voters should expect increased distance between voting booths, greater distance in interactions with election workers and frequent sanitizing of election equipment. No voter will be turned away for wearing, or not wearing, a mask, he said.

Although state law requires Kansas voters to show photo identification when casting a vote in-person, Executive Order 20-55 will allow voters to use driver’s licenses or identification cards that expired between March 12, 2020, and Sept. 15, 2020, in the primary and general election.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.
Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.