Legislature passes bill mandating Kansas counties use watermarked paper ballots

Critics not happy state dumping reform costs on county government

By: - April 27, 2022 8:06 am
Rep. Emil Bergquist, R-Park City, said changes in voter security would be effective making elections safer, but skeptics viewed it as another top-down government mandate. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Emil Bergquist, R-Park City, said changes in voter security would be effective making elections safer, but skeptics viewed it as another top-down government mandate. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The Kansas Legislature sent Gov. Laura Kelly a multifaceted election reform bill containing an unfunded mandate that local governments use ballots printed on watermarked paper.

Rep. Emil Bergquist, a Park City Republican who carried the bill on the House floor, said he didn’t know the price tag of the watermark provision to be paid by county governments financed primarily with property taxes. One estimate indicated the increased cost could be $1 per ballot. If the 105 counties provided enough ballots for the Kansans who voted in the 2020 presidential election, the cost would be more than $1 million.

“We have one more way of processing so the people responsible for county ballots, or canvassing ballots after an election, have a little more assurance that they’re telling the truth — that they’re verifying things to the max,” Bergquist said.

He said House Bill 2138 — passed by the House 82-40 on Tuesday and by the Senate 28-8 on April Fool’s Day — contained election refinements from a variety of sources worried about election security in Kansas.

Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat who spent 27 years working in local government between stints in the Legislature, said he couldn’t understand what problem would be addressed by pressing into paper ballots special identifying marks capable of being viewed when held to light.

The idea was hatched in the Senate and included in the bill without benefit of a public hearing in either the House or Senate, he said.

“I’m still left empty about why we’re doing this,” Miller said. “We complain here in this chamber about mandates from the federal government. As a local official, we had a number of complaints regarding mandates from this body to local units of government.”

Rep. Jason Probst, D-Hutchinson, said the Reno County clerk estimated it cost the county 10 cents to produce each of the current election ballots.

The watermark mandate, if signed into law by Kelly, could add $1 to the cost of each Reno County ballot, he said. Probst said the county often ordered 40,000 ballots for a typical election with a price tag of $4,000. The upgraded ballots could cost the county $40,000, he said.

Under the bill, every voting system in Kansas would make use of paper ballots with a distinctive watermark for elections after Jan. 1, 2024.

The legislation would prohibit counties from using voting equipment with the capability of being connected to the internet. County election officers would have to provide precinct-level election results electronically within 30 days for federal, statewide, legislative and local races.

Counties would be able to issue bonds to finance the purchase, lease or rental of electronic poll books for use at voting sites and for advance voting. After July 1, counties wouldn’t be able to purchase electronic poll books unless the system was certified by Secretary of State Scott Schwab.

“Election integrity is essential and must constantly be reviewed,” Schwab said. “This bill is an important step to further strengthen our current election system to continue ensuring that in  Kansas, one vote equals one person.”

In terms of voter roll accuracy, the bill would create a mechanism for people to be removed from voter registration lists. The protocol would be triggered if an address confirmation notice was returned “undeliverable” and the intended recipient had no voting activity in two subsequent federal election cycles.

The bill headed to the governor’s desk would create an election audit procedure performed by the secretary of state that would randomly select four counties for post-election examinations. One county would have a population greater than 90,000 and one county would have a population between 20,000 and 90,000. Two smaller counties with less than 20,000 people would be audited.

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Tim Carpenter
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.

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