It’s not that he’s against the idea of opening up easier voting access to polls, says Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker. It’s just that a new Kansas law allowing people to vote at any precinct comes with a pile of technical challenges that will make it impossible to implement by this fall, he said.
As for 2020? “We’ll do our best.”
Metsker and his office have been under intense pressure to opt into a new law that does not restrict people to their neighborhood polling place, he said. The change would essentially turn every polling place into a “voting center” like the ones now used for advance voting.
But since the law was signed, county officials have struggled with how to deal with it. Standing in the way are problems with Wi-Fi signals at polling places, yet-unwritten regulations from the state and the added time it will take to provide all electronic and paper ballots at every site.
“Our bottom line on the issue is that we want to produce an election that is 100 percent accurate and an integral process that the voters can have confidence in,” Metsker said during a recent discussion with the county commission.
New law aimed at reducing provisional ballots
The vote-anywhere idea originated with Sedgwick County officials, who hoped to reduce the number of provisional ballots that result when a person shows up at the wrong polling place and casts a vote.
Although Metsker was not on board with the original proposal, he said he didn’t testify against it after wording was added to allow counties to make their own decisions over whether to go along.
If lawmakers had asked county election officials, he said, they’d have found that the idea isn’t as simple as it sounds. Because of those complications, Metsker has been unable to offer a solid timeline on when the change could go into effect, or an idea of how much it could cost.
The county began overhauling its aging voting equipment in 2016. It bought new voting machines last year, only to have them freeze up when it came time to report results in the August 2018 primary. That problem has since been fixed, Metsker said.
The question about how to implement voting centers involves a different part of the system – electronic poll books.
These poll books replaced the old print-outs that required poll workers to locate the correct name and get voters to sign. Now the voter verification is done on Poll Pad electronic tablets. Once a person votes, the name is in the system and that person won’t be allowed to vote a second time.
The poll books talk to each other within the building via Bluetooth but need a secure Wi-Fi signal to communicate with equipment at other polling places. That works for advance voting, Metsker said, because there are only six advance voting places. (A seventh one is in the works for the Gardner area.) The county has been able to get a good signal for those places, ensuring people can’t vote in multiple spots.
But it’s a different world when there are 195 polling places, as in the most recent general election, Metsker said. Many of those churches or community buildings are smaller and don’t come with a reliable enough signal to make sure the voter database can be checked constantly against multiple voting. In fact, only about 65 to 75 percent of polling places on Election Day last year were connected at one time due to the instability of the signal, he said.
Advance voting allows for consolidation of polling places
A growing preference for advance voting may help a bit, but it won’t completely solve the problem. About 60 percent of the people who voted in Johnson County went to an advance voting site. The popularity of picking a day to vote ahead of the election has made it possible for the county to reduce the number of polling places from 284 a decade ago, Metsker said.
However the number of polling places can only be consolidated so far before long lines and accessibility become a problem, Metsker said.
Having people vote at any location has another big sticking point, he said. Since people could come from any city, school district or other jurisdiction, machines at each site will have to have all ballot styles available. That could be from 2,000 to 3,000 types of ballots because of all the small races for positions like township and political party representatives that are elected.
When there are that many ballots, it takes the machines longer to boot up and run the diagnostics before the voting begins, Metsker said. At advance sites, it can take an hour, versus seven minutes for a neighborhood polling place with limited ballots.
“You have election workers who are working 14 and 16 hours now. How’s it going to settle with them when they have to work 18 hours. How will they feel about starting at 3 a.m. instead of 4 a.m.?” he said.
All of these problems can be surmounted, just maybe not immediately, Metsker said. A couple of counties in Texas and Colorado similar to Johnson County have it figured out, and Metsker said he will try to learn from their model. He’s also having the county information techs look into it, so he can eventually get enough information together for an official request for proposals for a feasibility study. And in any case, nothing can happen until the Kansas Secretary of State writes regulations for the new law, which could take months, he said.
In the meantime, county officials have been getting a lot of feedback from voters, many who want to see more of a commitment to the new law.
Commissioner Fast says resident have confidence issues with Election Office
Commissioner Becky Fast told Metsker people at meetings she’s attended have expressed a “low degree of confidence” in the election office. “They are very passionate about this issue,” she said. “They feel like our county has resisted a lot of changes that Sedgwick has brought forward.”
Some of that distrust apparently comes from the publicity over the delayed reporting of the vote after the primary, she said. She also cited an American Civil Liberties lawsuit filed against the county for its list of provisional and advance mail ballots in that election. Johnson County was a deciding factor in former Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s win in the GOP nomination for governor.
“Sedgwick really led the voting at every site (law) and people feel like Johnson was against it at every step of the way,” Fast said. She asked that an outside company do the feasibility study, “so people can have a high degree of trust you’re willing to make this happen.”
Metsker acknowledged that he feels the scrutiny. “There’s an increasingly unprecedented visceral atmosphere that election offices are facing all across the country,” he said. “There are angry discussions going on out there unlike any I have experienced in my 69 years living in Johnson County.”
“We are approaching this to be as transparent as we can.”