State, JoCo election planning continues largely unchanged amid COVID-19

Johnson County residents can still register to vote in time for the Aug. 4 primary election. The deadline is Tuesday, July 14 and registration can be completed via mail, email or even text message. File photo.

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State election officials and the Kansas Democratic Party are forging ahead – albeit with caution – on election plans this year that have become focused on mail-in ballots and recruitment of high school and college students to run the polls.

Johnson County officials hope to use a simple on-line request form for advance ballots by mail. But that idea and any bigger changes must come from the secretary of state’s office, said Election Commissioner Connie Schmidt.

And as of last week, that office was calling for business as usual, with the caveat that things could change.

“We are planning right now for a regular election like we always do because (the primary) doesn’t happen until August,” Schmidt said. “We are moving forward in our normal election planning as we always do.”

The secretary of state’s office has no current plans to delay the August primary due to concerns about COVID-19. Any changes to the November 3 general election would be under the control of Congress.

Kansas Democrats, meantime, are preparing for their presidential primary May 2. As of Friday, there were no changes to the procedure for that vote, which will be entirely by mail.

In fact the Democratic presidential primary vote will be managed by the party from start to finish, with no involvement from the county election office.

Registered Democrats were to be mailed ballots beginning March 30, along with a “secrecy sleeve” and return envelope. They were advised to have the ballot postmarked by April 24 or to drop it off at their specified voting sites May 2. Those who don’t get a ballot by April 3 can request a replacement or fill out an online form until April 17.

The party does encourage voters to seal their envelopes with water rather than saliva, but there were no other changes due to the pandemic.

The mail-in primary is a departure for Kansas Democrats, who have had caucuses in the past. The Kansas Republicans called off their caucuses last fall.

For the other elections, Kansas allows votes in person in advance, and on Election Day, as well as by mail-in ballot requested in advance. That said, officials expect to get more mail-in ballot requests than normal this year, Schmidt said.

Schmidt said her office would like to make the application for requesting an advance ballot a little simpler since more people might be using them. She’d also like to let voters use just one form to request mail-in ballots for both the primary and general elections.

Both those changes would have to be approved by the Secretary of State.

Voters can help by registering and getting party affiliation changed well ahead of the deadline for the August 4 primary, according Secretary of State Scott Schwab. The deadline for changing party affiliation is June 1 and registration is July 14.

Schwab’s office also encouraged potential candidates to get their filing documents ready before the noon deadline June 1.

Schmidt said county residents do not need to register to vote in person. That can be done on line, with a driver’s license number or other piece of ID that will be verified. The request can then be mailed in or scanned and emailed.

The Johnson County Elections office can begin accepting requests for advance ballots next month. But the deadlines are tighter when it comes to actually voting. By law, the ballots can’t be sent out to voters until 20 days before an election – July 15 for the primary.

They must be returned postmarked on or before Election Day and received by the county election office no later than three days after the election.

Those deadlines created a problem in Johnson County during the last presidential election, in 2016. The volume of mailed ballots was so high that year the election office had difficulty keeping up.

That problem was exacerbated by slow mail delivery, which was a sore point for former Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker.

That year Metsker said he sent out 46,075 advance ballots, of which over 900 either returned too late or came back marked “return to sender.” Moreover, Metsker’s office received complaints from people who did not get their ballot and had to ask for another one under the tight time restrictions.

Recruiting poll workers is another aspect of the election that will shift because of concerns about coronavirus. Poll volunteers tend to skew older. Since the virus appears to be more dangerous for older people who contract it, county and state officials are working hard to recruit high school and college students this year instead.

The Secretary of State’s office started a program last summer to find those students, said spokesperson Katie Koupal. “At the appropriate time we will be aggressive in our approach to promote this program with students, parents and educators.”

State election officials have also looked into best practices for sanitizing voting machines and handling mailed ballots that may have been sealed with saliva.