Votes line up in cars to deliver mail ballots at a Shawnee County drop box in Topeka. As voters become skittish about the status of their mail ballot, some are voting in-person via provisional ballot. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Kansas election officials and activists are concerned with the high number of people who requested mail ballots showing up at polling places to cast in-person ballots instead.
These voters are directed to fill out a provisional ballot, which complicates the process for election workers who are already overwhelmed with unprecedented early turnout and social distancing constraints as a result of the pandemic. The provisional ballot will be counted a week after the election, when local officials verify the individual hasn’t voted twice, but won’t be included in election night results.
Counties across Kansas, and especially Johnson County, are seeing an uptick in the number of provisional ballots cast. Lines for in-person voting also appear longer than usual.
So far, counties have mailed more than 483,000 ballots to voters who requested them. About 46,000 of those mailed ballots have been returned, and an additional 30,000 Kansans have shown up to vote in person.
Johnson County opened 10 early voting locations Saturday and processed 7,562 votes, of which 1,011 were provisional. Another 739 provisional ballots were cast on the second day of early voting in the county.
Connie Schmidt, the Johnson County election commissioner, said almost all the provisional ballots were cast by those who had previously requested a mail ballot.
“Be patient. Many were receiving their ballots on Saturday, and they were voting in-person Saturday morning,” Schmidt said. “If you haven’t received your ballot by Wednesday, then you should call us.”
Schmidt said about 30,000 voters have returned mail ballots already. The county has eight drop boxes for those who don’t want to put their ballot in the mail.
For those who have requested a mail ballot, filling it out and dropping it off rather than showing up to vote in person speeds up the process of certifying election results, said Leslie Mark, the Kansas team lead for Indivisible KC, which is working to engage people in the voting process.
She said provisional ballots are not bad but will not be counted until the county canvass, which in Johnson County begins Nov. 9, the Monday after the election, and may last until Nov. 17. A substantial number of provisional ballots could change the outcome of a close race.
Mark urged voters to remain calm about the status of their mail ballots.
“Get a cup of tea or whatever libation works for you and take a deep breath,” Mark said. “If you asked for your ballot by mail, wait for it in the mailbox, put it in front of you, and fill it out safely from home. That’s why you asked for it in the first place.”
As mail ballots are received, the number of provisional ballots being filled out during early voting is expected to decline, said Katie Koupal, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office.
If voters are concerned about the status of their advanced ballot, they can track it online, Koupal said. Voters who are not sure whether they requested a by-mail ballot can contact the Secretary of State’s office or their local election office.
Koupal said if voters requested a mail ballot but change their mind, they can still come and vote in person, but they will be given a provisional ballot.
“If you wish to vote in person that is absolutely fine, but to prevent people from casting multiple votes you will be given a provisional ballot,” Koupal said.
Secretary of State Scott Schwab said if someone requests a mail ballot, decides to cast a provisional ballot in person, and then also sends in the mail ballot, only the mail ballot will count.
At some early voting locations, voters have found what appear to be longer lines than usual. Koupal said the line size only looks bigger because of the social distancing guidance put in place by the state in conjunction with local election offices.
Schwab reiterated this week that voters cannot be denied an opportunity to vote because they aren’t wearing a mask, but he encouraged all to wear a mask and maintain a safe distance
“Just to keep the peace in the process, obey your local health officials,” Schwab said. “Be safe out there. Wear a mask if you’re being requested to wear a mask just so you’re not creating a brawl.”
The secretary of state’s office has provided poll workers with personal protective equipment kits and plexiglass shields to provide an extra layer of protection.
Despite how the increased distance may make things appear, Koupal said locations with a large turnout — like Johnson County, Sedgwick County and Shawnee County — are reporting quick-moving lines.
Davis Hammett, president of Loud Light, a group that promotes election participation, said these long lines do pose some concern for overall turnout.
“There are some people who, it’s like arranging the transportation, getting the time off work — all of that can be a big barrier,” Hammet said. “So I would say if you do want to avoid that, you do still have time to request a mail ballot, but you need to do so now.”
The deadline to apply for a mail ballot is Oct. 27. Mail ballots must be postmarked by Election Day, Nov. 3, and received at the local election office by Friday, Nov. 6.
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