As the sun rises November 7, after most questions about who will win the mid-term elections have been answered, one last one will remain: Do you trust the results?
In Johnson County, that answer will depend on a second question: Do you trust Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker?
Against the backdrop of attempted hacking and voter suppression stories in other parts of the country this year, county election commissioners are suddenly being noticed.
And what people have begun to notice about Metsker is that he’s a former GOP county chairman appointed in 2016 by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who went on to win this year’s Kansas gubernatorial primary in part because of provisional ballots counted by Metsker’s office. Now that the contest for the 3rd District congressional seat looks like it might be close, it’s also being noted that Metsker’s wife, Susan, works for the incumbent Republican, Kevin Yoder.
Hence the question: Can Johnson Countians trust an election commissioner who owes his job and his wife’s job to two candidates on the ballot in tight races?
The Kansas City Star editorial board called for his resignation after the primary, and a subsequent editorial said his connections to Kobach will promote voter cynicism.
But county political leaders on both sides are reluctant to go that far. A few contacted by the Post questioned whether Metsker had sufficient background to run the elections office and some had issues with the system that allowed Kobach to appoint him. But none said they had good reason to doubt Metsker’s basic integrity.
Even county Democratic leaders, who might be expected to say otherwise, said they don’t doubt Metsker’s intentions. “I’m quite sure Ronnie runs that office to the best of his ability,” said Johnson County Democratic chair Nancy Leiker. “I don’t think he has the background for the job, but given that, I think he does it as good as he can with his limited background.”
Instead of worrying whether the system is rigged, Leiker said people should just get out and vote.
Metsker himself has pledged an even hand: “All I have is my name and my life history of serving with integrity,” he said. “I don’t feel pressure. I walk down the middle and I don’t look to the left or to the right.”
Reporting problems draw criticism
As the supervisor of polling, registration, vote counting and reporting, Metsker has been in the hot seat since he was first appointed to the job shortly before the last presidential election. Things didn’t go right that year. There were computer issues with the out-of-date system and complaints about slow mail service that affected absentee voters.
Then in this year’s August primaries, more reporting problems – this time with brand-new equipment. Things only intensified when the Republican race for governor ended up being so tight that Johnson County’s provisional ballots (those put on hold because of questions about their validity) were a deciding factor.
Things are better on track now, Metsker says. The coding glitch with the new machines has been fixed and certified by federal and state authorities after rigorous tests, and is now reporting “dazzlingly fast,” he said.
It’s a little difficult to put a political label on Metsker. Mike Jones, who recently stepped down as chairman of the Johnson County Republican Party, thinks of him as a conservative, though maybe not a far-to-the-right conservative. He was identified as a moderate in one newspaper story ten years ago. But he has also been quoted as someone who wants to be a bridge builder who rejects the idea of such labels.
Since leaving county GOP role, attempts to stay out of partisan politics
Longtime Kansas City residents may remember the Metsker family as founders of Kansas City Youth for Christ and the evangelical TV programming on TV-50. Metsker was involved in that non-profit for most of his life, taking over the reins in the 1980s.
He was appointed by the county Republicans to the state House of Representatives in 2007 to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Ed O’Malley, who resigned. At the time, he said he considered himself a bridge builder whose actions were informed by a deep faith.
Bridge building came up again the next year. Having lost re-election to the House, Metsker ran for and won chairmanship of the county GOP.
Kobach, who was then state Republican chair, had an effect on that election. Kobach instituted a rule that year that any precinct committee members who contributed to Democrats would not have their votes for chairman counted. As a result, 15 moderates were not able to vote in that election.
Metsker resigned county chairmanship with Kobach’s appointment naming him election commissioner. Since becoming commissioner, he said he’s refrained from doing anything that could be perceived as partisan. He doesn’t speak at political functions and he stayed away from the recent Trump rally in Topeka, he said, because of the danger of his presence being misinterpreted.
He doesn’t talk politics at the office, either, and says his staff does the same. “Our office is like Switzerland. It’s amazingly neutral here,” he said. Metsker and his staff stay focused on the technical aspects of running elections, not the candidates, he said.
“It’s kind of an unwritten rule about how our office functions. Even when we’re behind closed doors in a conference room we don’t talk about the candidates. It’s just the way our office operates. It’s in our DNA here.”
Though a Pew Research Center poll from 2017 shows mistrust of Washington government at an all-time high, local politics watchers – even some leaning farther left than Metsker – say they have a little more optimism.
Leiker, of the county Democrats, said she’s heard the concerns about Metsker’s connections. But that shouldn’t discourage anyone from voting, she said, adding that the excitement level on the Democratic side is high, with a gain of 12,500 registrants since March, to make 110,000 in the county.
Anne Pritchett, president of Johnson County Democratic Women North, reports similar voter enthusiasm. But she said she’s more skeptical of Metsker’s competency. “Do I have any tangible reasons not to trust Ronnie? No. I don’t trust him but it’s mainly because he was a state rep and I don’t think he did a very good job at that. So I’m not sure he’s competent to handle the responsibilities of being the election commissioner.”
Danny Novo, spokesman for the Mainstream Coalition and Ellen Miller, president of the Johnson County League of Women Voters, said they were also confident that the elections office would do its best.
“I think we are comfortable that public servants will do their jobs to the best of their abilities without feeling compelled by any loyalties to anyone who gave them the job,” said Novo.
Miller said the League is confident the elections have been transparent to this point. “We certainly have expectations that there will not be a repeat of the primary problems,” she said. Those expectations include a smooth ride at the polling stations, fast and accurate reporting of results and transparency on the counting of provisional ballots.
Doubts persist about appointment process for Johnson County Election Commissioner
But confidence in a system that allows a politician to appoint the person who counts his own votes was another matter. Several people said they’d be open to another look at the way the election offices are set up in the state’s largest counties.
In most of Kansas, elections are run by locally-elected officials such as county clerks. The exception is the four most populated counties, including Johnson County. Because there are so many voters, the job in those counties is a full-time, year-round position. Kansas law calls for election commissioners to be appointed by the Secretary of State, in this case Kobach.
But whether the election commissioner is appointed by the Secretary of State, the local county commission or a non-partisan elected official, the result will be the same. The election commissioner will end up counting the votes of the person who appointed him.
That’s why some have called for the election commissioners to be elected themselves.
Bob Beatty, professor of political science at Washburn University said that change could solve the problem of accountability. In Shawnee County, which includes Topeka, commissioners and the election commissioner have been at odds over who has final say on spending.
Having an elected, non-partisan elections commissioner could ease some of the trust issues. “That party label, unfortunately, has made people much more distrustful of the system because the attacks of the parties on each other really contribute to that,” Beatty said.
Jones, the recently departed Johnson County Republican Party chair, is not on board with those ideas, though.
“I’m of the mindset that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “A lot of people work in election office and they’re not all Republicans. If Ronnie Metsker was doing anything underhanded it would come to light.”
And Jones is sure Metsker will play it straight. “I have zero concern that Ronnie is going to be anything but fair,” he said, adding that Metsker won’t even talk politics anymore with him. “I can’t think of any man or woman who would be more upstanding in that position than Ronnie Metsker.”
Metsker cited the trust he’s built up over his 68 years. “The only thing I really have in life is the integrity, my image, the impression through my years and years and years and years of public service and so that’s what I stand on,” he said. “I’m a man of deep faith and committed to integrity. I have no other answer for that.”