Baxter Springs Republican Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, right, defended his bill against Democratic criticism that would require all 105 county election offices sign affidavits to document movement of ballots. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)Reflector)
TOPEKA — Sen. Richard Hilderbrand’s residual apprehension about possible late-night shredding of ballots in Cherokee County prompted the Baxter Springs Republican to draft a bill requiring election officials in all 105 Kansas counties adopt an affidavit system to verify the chain of custody for every ballot.
The bill tentatively approved Wednesday by the Kansas Senate would compel county election workers to account for provisional, spoiled, blank and counted ballots under threat of felony prosecution. The affidavit mandate would supplement existing law guiding transporting, preserving and destroying ballots and election records. A person allegedly providing false information to hinder, prevent or defeat a fair election could be subject to arrest and a sentence ranging from probation to months in jail.
“There is still the human-error element in everything we do,” Hilderbrand said. “Any time we can secure and insure fair elections, that every vote legally cast is counted, we owe it to our constituents.”
Hilderbrand said the criminal penalty was inserted into Senate Bill 390 because of his concern about suspicious conduct of the Cherokee County election clerk while he was serving as a county commissioner around 2010. He said he was convinced there were missing ballots, but it wasn’t clear whether it was an intentional strategy to influence the result or an election management mistake involving a coverup. The election clerk at that time was Crystal Gatewood, wife of Democrat state Rep. Doug Gatewood.
“It provides a chain of custody for all ballots going in and out of an election office,” Hilderbrand said.
Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Fairway, said the bill championed by Hilderbrand and other Republican senators was among election reform legislation considered in the 2022 session that wasn’t sought by county or election clerks or Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican.
“We are, I think, improperly inserting ourselves into a really complicated system,” Corson said. “We have secure elections. There is not a problem.”
He said proponents of state-mandated growth in the election bureaucracy were the type of folks likely to reveal anxiety about alien invasions. He said the rush to expand state statute could result in less-secure elections and convince poll workers to quit what many considered a civic duty.
“We just have to level with some our constituents and say, ‘They are frankly misinformed,'” Corson said. “We cannot continue at taxpayer expense cater to the whim of every constituent who got a weird Facebook message about our elections not being secure.”
Sen. Beverly Gossage, R-Eudora, said she’d worked as a poll judge and was impressed by how strict election workers were about accuracy. Still, she said, the bill was needed to reassure some Kansans that elections hadn’t been compromised by cheaters.
“I’m sure that the good senator from Johnson, Sen. Corson, didn’t mean to insult the people who have been contacting me as well that are very concerned about elections and about ballots being lost,” Gossage said. “I think this will just help allay their fears. I don’t see them as people who are looking and saying, ‘I saw a UFO.'”
Hilderbrand, who was pummeled with questions about implementation details during Senate debate on the bill, said he didn’t understand why the exchange devolved into discussion of aliens.
“Not sure what that was about,” said Hilderbrand, who pivoted to his election experiences in Cherokee County. “I introduced this bill not because I was sitting at home one night and didn’t have anything else to do and was just trying to think of ways to make certain senators uneasy about an election bill.”
Democratic Sen. Marci Francisco of Lawrence offered a motion — soundly rejected — to send the bill back for work by a Senate committee, especially to clarify language about who was responsible to participate in the affidavit system. The bill says the secretary of state would be responsible for filling regulatory gaps in the legislation in consultation with county election officials.
Democratic Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau of Wichita, said the Legislature didn’t have any business passing bills on a subject as important as elections without clear understanding of how changes would play out.
“I don’t want people being arrested just for a simple mistake,” she said. “We don’t want to scare away people.”
Sen. Rob Olson, an Olathe Republican, said the bill would help build public confidence in county election officials and the secretary of state’s office.
“After the last couple elections,” Olson said, “people that I’ve talked to, they’re concerned about how they went.”
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