Ballot watermark bill raises questions of county costs, implications for Kansans with disabilities

By: - March 2, 2022 9:49 am

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand said the ballot watermark bill would be an easy way to further secure elections. While opponents supported parts of the policy, some provisions drew financial and accessibility concerns. (Feb. 8, 2022, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Kansas bill would require all voting systems in the state to use a paper ballot with a distinctive watermark and a hand audit of those ballots after the election.

Sen. Richard Hilderbrand introduced Senate Bill 389, touting it as a simple addition to ensure elections in Kansas remain safe and secure. Currently, Kansas statute requires a stamp by the election clerk to be physically put on the ballot.

Hilderbrand did not want to leave this process up to chance.

“My experience is human error could cause an election clerk to miss one, possibly,” the Baxter Springs Republican told legislators Tuesday in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee. “This watermark would be something that would be distinct and would be determined each election cycle by the secretary of state.”

While the state would not incur any costs if the measure is passed, both the Secretary of State’s Office and the Kansas Association of Counties estimated equipment costs and ballot printing, in addition to additional wages to be paid to election board workers, would set counties back. Others raised concerns about a signature provision’s implications for Kansans with disabilities.

The cost of printing new ballots was a primary issue for Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light. He was among those who supported aspects of the bill but testified in opposition to some key concerns.

For example, Hammet said, a provision authorizing a random selection or risk-limiting audit was beneficial. This audit provides a confidence assessment for each race to allow election offices to focus their attention where it is needed most.

What did concern Hammet was what the newly printed ballots would mean for existing stockpiles in counties.

“It would also mean that every single election, they would have to buy more and more paper and all of the extra would be thrown out,” Hammet said. “All of these costs would be borne by local governments with no support from the state.”

The Kansas Association of Counties testified neutrally on the bill but asked that the statute look out for local government budgets and not require significant capital purchases for their offices. Sen. Alicia Straub, an Ellinwood Republican, was also uneasy about the potential costs.

“How many ballots are we going to print for each voter?” Straub said. “I think printing multiple ballots per voter could be a problem.”

Mike Burgess, director of policy and outreach at Disability Rights Center in Kansas, said the requirement of a physical signature would be a concern for quadriplegics and others that require assistance to sign. Although a representative of the Secretary of State’s office said there is a statute to account for this already, Burgess said clarifying language in the bill would move them from opposition to supporters.

“The end of that handwritten signature piece, we would prefer to see that additional security to make sure that someone you know, with the instance with the quadriplegia, where there would be an affidavit process, as well,” Burgess said.

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Noah Taborda
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.