In JoCo visit, Kansas Sec. of State says office will take measured approach to expanding polling location option

A new Kansas law clears the way for voters to cast their ballots at any polling site. But top election officials say they’re not going to rush implementation.

It’s not one hundred percent certain that Kansans will be free to vote at their choice of polling places in time for the 2020 presidential election, says Secretary of State Scott Schwab, because of the many technical and security issues that still have to be worked out.

“We’re not in a hurry to screw this up. We want to make sure that the election is an election you get a result you can trust in,” he told Johnson County Commissioners during a brief visit to their Thursday meeting.

Kansas Sec. of State Scott Schwab.

Schwab was referring to a law passed recently that would uncouple voting from neighborhood polling places. The law will allow any voter to cast a ballot at any polling place on Election Day, regardless of where he or she lives.

But it can’t go into effect until the Secretary of State’s office issues regulations on the details of how counties will implement it. “I’m not promising those will be done next year,” he said, adding afterwards that changes of this magnitude usually take two to three years. When California made a similar change, he said, it took three years to implement.

“If we were to do it in a handful of months I think there’d be a lot of folks concerned that we didn’t do our job,” he said.

Schwab echoed some of the same concerns county Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker voiced last spring about the security of electronic signals at polling places. When someone shows up at a polling place different from his or her neighborhood, election workers need a way to check that the person has not already voted somewhere else.

For that, electronic poll books need a Wi-Fi or cell connection. But the networks can be limited or not especially secure at some of the smaller polling places, compromising the information. The fact that districts and hence candidates can overlap adds another layer of complication in providing ballots, he said.

Moreover, the secretary’s office is also waiting on recommendations from the federal Department of Homeland Security and the vendors about how to make this type of voting secure, he said. Cyber attacks were recently reported on several Kansas county systems in August, a few of which were holding elections at the time, he noted.

“Why would you care about that election? Unless it was a rehearsal,” he said.

Frustration about hacking attempts has grown to the point that some election watchers have called for a return to paper ballots marked by hand. In comments afterward, Schwab agreed paper is more secure, but cautioned that there should always be backup. Electronic records plus paper provide more security, he said.

“Paper will always be safer than digital, but working together is even safer than just paper, because what happens if that paper becomes damaged or is misprinted?” he said. “You can’t hack a piece of paper but you can still destroy it.”

Smaller counties have not expressed much interest in opting into the new law due to the expense and lack of internet access, he said. And Johnson County has a good system now that makes it easy for residents to vote.

“So if we get them done by 2020 that’s fantastic. But I’m not going to compromise the integrity of your election system just so that you can have that,” he said.

Comments on liquor laws, same-day registration, schools as voting sites

Schwab also answered questions from commissioners on other election topics. He tossed the ball back into the county’s court when it came to the rule governing liquor by the drink. Local brewery owners want the county to get rid of a requirement that establishments serving alcoholic drinks make at least 30 percent of their sales from food.

The 30 percent rule has been a hindrance to small start-ups, brewery owners have said, because of the expense and lack of expertise in running a restaurant. The commission discussed putting the question on this year’s local ballots, but members were unsure whether the law required a state-wide election. Schwab said the decision is up to the county.

He also demurred from taking a position on same-day voter registration. That’s a matter for the legislature to decide, he said. One argument against it is that candidates could potentially be rage-voted out of office based on fake web posts planted by election trolls.

But Schwab said he doubts schools will be back as polling places any time soon. Many elementary schools don’t have enough parking to meet the federal guidelines for polling places, he said. But a bigger issue is the security risk inherent in opening up the schools for walk-ins on elections. Even if schools took Election Day off, the voting would still allow people to come in and size up the floor plan, he said.

“We just live in a different world and we’ve got to tread carefully,” he said.