Cancer-stricken Sedgwick County election commissioner forced out for violating IT policy

Lehman admits to improperly accessing voter registration database

Secretary of State Scott Schwab said he won't reappoint the Sedgwick County elections commissioner to a new term due to violations of security rules designed to protect integrity of the state's voter registration system. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
Secretary of State Scott Schwab said he won't reappoint the Sedgwick County elections commissioner to a new term due to violations of security rules designed to protect integrity of the state's voter registration system. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s decision not to reappoint Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman due to violations of election security protocol covering the voter registration database prompted a sharp response from Lehman in defense of bending rules to accommodate her treatment for an aggressive cancer.

Schwab, who holds appointment power of election officials in Sedgwick County and three other populous counties, informed Lehman in early January that she would lose her job. He explained to her the reason was refusal to follow security procedures designed to limit computer access to the state’s voter registration system. Her infractions occurred leading up to the November 2020 election.

Lehman accessed the system from home despite admonitions to interact with the registration database exclusively from the secure network at the county election office. The expiration of her term in July offered the secretary of state an opportunity to appoint someone else to the job.

“This was not a hasty decision,” Schwab said. “We understand the difficult circumstances election officials encountered throughout the fall. Ultimately, we could not jeopardize the safety of Kansas elections systems to the benefit of one.” 

Lehman said she stood by her decision to sidestep Schwab’s orders while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatment since March 2020 for an aggressive form of lymphoma. Her cancer emerged as spread of COVID-19 placed her health at further risk if she worked from the county’s offices. She said in a statement that it was her intention not to request reappointment to another term.

Schwab said Lehman was informed of the plan not to reappoint her on Jan. 5. He also said Lehman “agreed with the course of action and admitted ignoring statewide security protocols” by accessing the registration database from her personal residence.

“The secretary of state places the highest priority on maintaining the safety and security of Kansas elections,” Schwab said. “The security of our elections systems and the personal information of Kansans will not be put at risk, regardless of the circumstances.”

Tabitha Lehman, election commissioner in Sedgwick County, violated the statewide security protocol by accessing the voter registration database from her home. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)
Tabitha Lehman, election commissioner in Sedgwick County, violated the statewide security protocol by accessing the voter registration database from her home. (Submitted/Kansas Reflector)

Lehman, in turn, said she was assured by Sedgwick County information technology staff that getting into the Kansas voter registration system from a computer at her home was just as secure as opening the system from her office.

“Because of my oath to uphold the laws and constitutions of the United States and the state of Kansas, I knowingly chose to violate the policy of the secretary of state in order to direct a fair and accurate presidential election,” Lehman said. “I stand by my decision to rely on the security of the Sedgwick County network to fulfill my duty.”

Schwab said the statewide voter registration system was not under the purview of IT employees in Sedgwick County. He said there was “never a reason to compromise that system. Unfortunately, Mrs. Lehman thought there was.”

State law grants the Kansas secretary of state with authority to appoint election commissioners in Sedgwick, Shawnee, Johnson and Wyandotte counties. Election officials in the state’s 101 other counties are elected by residents of those counties. The secretary of state also has responsibility to oversee Kansas elections.

In 2011, then-Secretary of State Krisk Kobach selected Lehman to serve as commissioner in Sedgwick County. Lehman had previously worked as the county’s advance voting coordinator and deputy election commissioner.

“Tabitha Lehman brings an extraordinary breadth of experience to the job of election commissioner,” Kobach said. “Her commitment to defending the voting rights of Kansas citizens is unwavering. I have great confidence that she will serve the voters of Sedgwick County exceptionally well.”

Schwab said statements made by Lehman required him to publicly “correct the record.” In a statement, he thanked Lehman for her service and wished her well in the future.

Lehman said it had been a joy to serve voters of the county for more than nine years. She expressed gratitude to colleagues in the county’s election office.