Kansas audit of election security exposes strengths, weaknesses of voting systems

Auditors urge secretary of state to offer greater guidance to county officials

By: - July 6, 2023 1:21 pm
Rep. Shawn Tarwater, R-Stilwell, and chairman of the joint House and Senate auditing committee led peers through presentation of a review of election security policy and procedures in Kansas counties. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Shawn Tarwater, R-Stilwell, and chairman of the joint House and Senate auditing committee led peers through presentation of a review of election security policy and procedures in Kansas counties. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — The auditing division of the Kansas Legislature reported Thursday election officials in more than a dozen counties studied maintained adequate overall security practices and management of election computers but raised questions about the security of ballots and vote tabulation machines.

The objective of the review was to provide a partial picture of Kansas’ election security by comparing practices in Kansas against a set of policies recommended by federal election regulators.

“Our results showed Kansas counties have many practices for ensuring the accuracy and security of elections,” the report delivered to House and Senate members said. “They’re also missing or have weak practices in several important areas. That means security isn’t as good as it could or should be.”

Auditors recommended the office of Secretary of State Scott Schwab create example election security policies and standardized forms for use by county officials at their discretion.

Schwab’s office also should use annual training and certification opportunities to affirm for election workers the value of embracing a baseline set of security measures, auditors said.

In addition, auditors proposed the secretary of state provide guidance to county election officers in terms of what election materials ought to be sealed in ballot containers and what documents should remain available for public review. Auditors discovered Ford and Chase counties sealed away from public examination “most of their 2022 election documentation” related to what practices were followed.

Schwab responded to the audit by noting the assessment of 13 counties recognized county-to-county differences in election practices relative to the size of a county and availability of financial resources and personnel to conduct elections. He said the state’s 101 locally elected election clerks, as well as the four election clerks he was responsible for appointing, were in the best position to assess security issues.

“However, the secretary of state’s office agrees there are areas where election security policies and procedures may be strengthened,” Schwab’s written response said.

Individuals and organizations skeptical of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election won by President Joe Biden have pressed for audits and reviews of elections in hope of finding evidence of fraud that denied former President Donald Trump a reelection victory. Trump carried Kansas in a landslide by earning 771,000 votes to Biden’s total of 570,000, a gap of nearly 15 percentage points.

The GOP-led Kansas Legislature adopted a series of bills intended to bolster accuracy and security of election equipment, data and staffing.

In Kansas, county offices administer elections and the Kansas secretary of state provided oversight in terms of compliance with state and federal law. Each ballot cast in Kansas must be stored on a digital recording system, but voters statewide also made use of paper ballots. Data must be transferred to the office of Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican and former state legislator from Johnson County.

The audit of Kansas elections was requested last year by Sen. Dennis Pyle, a Hiawatha independent who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2022 and has been among lawmakers questioning election security in relation to the 2020 campaign. He was credited by some Republicans for drawing votes from GOP nominee Derek Schmidt and contributing to Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s reelection in November.

The legislative auditors examined election security in Chase, Chautauqua, Dickinson, Douglas, Ford, Harvey, Jackson, Johnson, Lincoln, Miami, Riley, Russell, Sedgwick, Sheridan and Wyandotte counties.

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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.