On Primary Election night 2018, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach spoke twice on the phone with Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker.
It’s not surprising that the Secretary of State was seeking an update on the status of the vote count. It was, after all, the second major election in a row in which Johnson County, the state’s most populous county, had been unable to post vote tallies in a timely manner. And as Secretary of State, Kobach was in charge of reporting the statewide vote total.
The software failure that led to those long delays has been well documented. But for some Johnson County voters, it was the political ties between Kobach and Metsker that raised the most concerns as uncertainty surrounded the outcome of such a close race. Kobach, a former chair of the state Republican party, had appointed Metsker, then the sitting chair of the Johnson County Republican Party, to the six-figure position in 2016, and then reappointed him just weeks after Kobach emerged with a narrow victory over Gov. Jeff Colyer in the primary.
Though local officials — including the chair of the Johnson County Democratic Party — stepped forward following the election to say they didn’t doubt Metsker’s integrity, the appearance of possible ties between an election official and a gubernatorial candidate raised renewed concerns about the process for appointing the election commissioner here.
With Metsker’s unexpected resignation last week, Johnson County’s Election Commissioner position is open yet again. And again some local officials are questioning whether the current gives Johnson County residents enough say in the process and confidence in the system.
Johnson County is 1 of 4 with commissioner appointed by Secretary of State
In 101 of Kansas’s 105 counties, voters elect a county clerk who is in charge of overseeing elections. In the state’s four most populous counties, however, the secretary of state has the authority to name an election commissioner.
The legislature initially devised that system in hopes of keeping the kind of political influence that could emerge in areas with large, active political circles out of oversight of elections. But, as the situation with Metsker and Kobach illustrates, such issues can present themselves with a secretary of state appointment as well.
Last week, the Shawnee Mission Post invited every member of the area’s delegation to the Kansas statehouse as well as members of the Johnson County Board of County Commissioners to comment on the process for replacing Metsker. All of the members of the legislature who responded said they did not support the current system, which keeps Johnson County voters and officials without any guaranteed authority.
“I do not think that the Secretary of State should have appointment power for election commissioners in the four most populous counties, both because it is unfair to treat four counties differently than others due to their size, and also because the Secretary of State is a partisan office, and because of that, would only be likely to appoint individuals who are also partisan,” wrote Rep. Stephanie Clayton. “We want our election process to be secure and trusted, because it is the foundation for our democracy.”
Rep. Jarrod Ousley of Merriam seconded those sentiments.
“I disagree with having two separate systems for determining election commissioners…in part because our election systems should provide uniform opportunities for each Kansan,” he said.
Locals have confidence in Schwab — but still want to see change
Following Metsker’s resignation, Secretary of State Scott Schwab, the former Republican state representative from Olathe who replaced Kobach after winning a statewide election last fall, announced he was opening an application period seeking Metsker’s replacement that will close Jan. 6. In the announcement, Schwab said he’ll be looking for a candidate with at least three years of management experience, strong communication and relationship-building skills, and a degree that ensures a base-level knowledge of technology or administration.
Schwab inspires more confidence among many local officials than Kobach did. (Rep. Brandon Woodard said Schwab is “is eminently more qualified to appoint an election commissioner, compared to his hyper-partisan, ultra-conservative predecessor.”) But that doesn’t mean there’s broad support for the current arrangement.
As for what would replace it, though, the ideas are all over the board.
Commissioner Becky Fast said she believes the Johnson County Board of Commissioners should have the authority to appoint the top election official since it’s the elected members of that body that end up allocating funding to the election office.
Commissioner Janeé Hanzlick said she would support either making the election commissioner job a non-partisan, elected position “consistent with the other 101 counties in the state,” or having the Board of County Commissioners appoint a bipartisan Election Advisory Board to select the Election Commissioner. She noted that Nebraska is currently moving to such a system.
Clayton said she prefers that approach over making the position an elected one.
“If Johnson County elected their election commissioner, I would have concerns that that position might become politicized,” Clayton said. “I would prefer to see selection process in which a nonpartisan board, including randomly selected citizens, interviewed and met with applicants and made the selection that way.”
County Chair Ed Eilert, who was on the advisory group that helped narrow the field of candidates for the job back in 2016, raised similar concerns about the idea of having residents elect a commissioner. He said the county clerk system used in the 101 other counties doesn’t guarantee qualified candidates.
“All you have to do to get the job there is get the most votes,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what your qualifications are.”
On that front, he said, one of the best things that could happen would be a change in the requirement that the Election Commissioner must have lived in Johnson County for two years. Eliminating that requirement would broaden the applicant pool, allowing people with specialized expertise — and no local political ties — to apply for the job.
Fast agreed with that notion.
“This law should be amended to allow a nation-wide search given the importance of recruiting candidates with specialized expertise in election systems and information technology,” Fast said.
Prospects for change are low, focus is on getting qualified candidates seated soon
Despite a broad consensus that Johnson County residents would be better served by a different system, members of the statehouse delegation said there’s almost no appetite to take up the issue at present.
“In general, I’m not too optimistic about the legislature’s willingness to deal with this in the near future,” said Rep. Rui Xu of Westwood. “Next year’s big battles are already penciled in — Medicaid Expansion, constitutional amendment on abortion, etc… — and there probably isn’t the capacity to have a worthy discussion on this issue, especially in an election year.”
Eilert said the focus now should be on working with the secretary of state’s office to help identify qualified candidates to ensure whoever gets the job will be ready to hit the ground running.
“The 2020 elections are coming very soon,” Eilert said. “Johnson County needs to be ready.”
Note: On Friday, we put out a call for comment for this story to every member of the Shawnee Mission area’s delegation to the statehouse as well as every member of the Board of County Commissioners. The following officials responded: Reps. Stephanie Clayton, Brandon Woodard, Rui Xu and Jarrod Ousley; County Commissioners Becky Fast and Janeé Hanzlick and County Chair Ed Eilert.