Johnson County commissioners express concern with potential expansion of mail-in ballot distribution

Roxie Hammill - November 4, 2019 11:41 am
Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker. File photo.

The Johnson County Commission is not on board with possible new efforts to expand the list of voters who can get ballots in the mail automatically every election.

Commissioners made a last-minute addition to their legislative agenda Thursday that implied disapproval of what Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker said is likely to be a push to allow more of the automatic mailings. The legislative agenda is a list of positions taken by commissioners every year on issues likely to come up in the next session.

The commission originally considered writing a platform plank that would “oppose” any changes, but changed it to more passive wording to “support the current statute” lest the public think they oppose advance voting in general.

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The ballots in question are available now to voters who sign an affidavit that they are sick or permanently disabled. Once on the list, the voters get ballots mailed to them for all elections.

Metsker told the commission that there’s talk about loosening up the rules on who can get on the automatic mailing list. That could lead to people asking for the ballots for convenience rather than disability, he said.

“It gets very cumbersome, very expensive and leads to more people adding themselves to the list,” he said. In other states that have done it, he said, voting has evolved to being primarily by mail.

A huge expansion of the automatic mail-in list would cause problems for the county, he said. Besides the $2-per-voter cost, the election office staffers would have to keep tabs on updating addresses because ballot mailings, by law, cannot be forwarded. And it would undercut the considerable effort the county has already made to provide in-person advance voting, Metsker said.

The current rules don’t call for a doctor’s note, so it’s possible a few people might already be gaming the system to get on the permanent list. But Metsker said he doubts it’s a very big number. Somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 people out of 417,000 registered voters are on the list now, which Metsker said is a reasonable number to expect. Besides, most people are leery of possible repercussions of signing a document that declares a disability.

The commission originally considered writing a platform plank that would “oppose” any changes, but changed it to more passive wording to “support the current statute” lest the public think they oppose advance voting in general.

This is the second time in recent months the commission has expressed reservations about changes that would make it easier to vote. The “vote anywhere” change approved by state lawmakers last session was met with some skepticism because of technical issues with wifi security at polling places. That change allows voters to cast a ballot at any polling place regardless of where they live. Officials are waiting for regulations to be written by the Kansas Secretary of State’s office before that can go into effect.

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