New state law could let JoCo voters cast ballot at any county polling site. Will Election Office allow it?

Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker said the county is reviewing the new law and considering whether to opt in. Sedgwick County has already signed on to the measure.

A new Kansas law making it possible to vote at any county polling place on election days is still being evaluated by Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker before he decides whether Johnson County should opt in.

The law, recently signed by Gov. Laura Kelly, was part of an election-related package that also requires officials to try to contact voters whose advance ballots have signature discrepancies.

The polling location part of the law says a voter can walk into any polling place in the county and still be able to cast a vote, even if he or she was in the wrong precinct or ward. In past elections, such a voter might turn back and go to the correct location, or be asked to fill out a provisional ballot.

The bill was introduced with the idea of reducing the number of those provisional ballots and making elections more convenient for voters, said Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman. Sedgwick County and Wichita were backers of the bill.

Kelly’s signature doesn’t guarantee that every county will offer the option, though. The county election commissioners can decide whether to participate. That language was included because some Kansas counties may not have a problem with provisional ballots, or may not have the technology to offer the polling place choice, Lehman said.

Provisional ballots caused headaches in recent elections

Attorney Keith Mark, who was representing the Kobach campaign, spoke with reporters after Johnson County released its official final vote tally, which extended Kobach’s statewide lead in last summer’s gubernatorial primary. The tallying of provisional ballots took on outsized importance in the outcome of the tight race.

Provisional ballots have been a post-election headache for Sedgwick and Johnson Counties in the past couple of elections. Provisional ballots must be looked at individually before canvassers decide whether to count them, and those decisions are sometimes controversial. Sedgwick County had over 1,600 provisional ballots because of the incorrect polling place in the 2016 presidential election and 1,100 last year, she said.

When turnout is high and election results are close, as they have been recently, the provisional ballots make a big difference. People who voted provisionally at the wrong location may not have gotten the same ballot as they would have if they’d gone to the correct precinct because of the different district borders. As a result, they may not have had a chance to vote in some races.

Provisional ballots were also a big issue in Johnson County during the August primary because the Republican contest between Kris Kobach and Jeff Colyer was also close. In last November’s election, Johnson County had 5,628 provisional ballots, 1,248 of which were from people voting in the wrong place.

County Chair Ed Eilert said cost has to be a factor in considering whether to allow voters the option to choose their polling place.

But Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert expressed some skepticism about the new law at a recent commission meeting. He questioned whether the new law would necessitate an internet connection.

“Currently our voting system is not connected to the internet, which gives us a high, high level of security as far as the integrity of the voting system,” he said. An internet connection “makes our system vulnerable to malicious activity that currently cannot occur.”

Eilert also said the change is liable to cost the county a significant amount to maintain security. “So there are some real issues that could impact us,” Eilert said.

Metsker did not respond directly to either of those concerns, but said he’s assessing the new law. “We are evaluating the fiscal and logistical feasibility of Johnson County participation. We look forward to continuing to explore this new option that would build upon our current convenient, efficient and consistent voting experience,” he wrote in an emailed reply to the Post.

Technologically the voting machines in Sedgwick County are similar to Johnson County’s new machines, having been purchased recently from the same company. Lehman said she doesn’t expect the new law will endanger election security in the Wichita area. Like Johnson County, Sedgwick already has advance voting places where people from any precinct can come in to vote and receive the correct ballot.

To make sure people aren’t voting at multiple advance locations, the electronic poll books containing the voter rolls have to be able to talk to each other, she said. But that is done on a secure connection that is not accessible or visible to people other than election officials, she said, adding that it’s encrypted and doesn’t connect to the vote-recording part of the system.

Making the change may cost Sedgwick County something for testing and post-election voting audit, Lehman said, but it will still be better than all the work and expense that goes into hand-counting those provisional ballots.

The administrative rules for the change will have to be set before the new law can go into effect, making it unlikely that any Kansans will be able to vote at any polling place in this fall’s elections, Lehman said.

Another part of the law requires election commissioners to try to contact people whose advance paper ballots left off a signature or have a signature that doesn’t match the one on file. The voter will be allowed to correct the signature before the final vote count.

A Johnson County judge ordered Metsker’s office to hand over a list of provisional ballots — including ballots rejected because of signature mismatch — to a progressive activist in February after the ACLU sued in part over concerns that some voters may not have been aware that their ballots weren’t tallied.