Johnson Countians can start voting soon — here’s what you need to know

Photo credit Kansas News Service.

Johnson Countians are on the cusp of being able to vote in one of the most unprecedented and highly anticipated elections in modern memory.

The Nov. 3 general election is three weeks away, and this week, the Johnson County Election Office will begin mailing out the more than 140,000 mail-in ballots requested by voters this year amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Interim Election Commissioner Connie Schmidt told county commissioners earlier this month that her office is planning for a record 90% turnout this year, driven  by the presidential race, a competitive contest for U.S. Senate and numerous other contests for local races down the ballot.

Schmidt, who served as Johnson County’s election head from 1994 to 2005 before being named interim late last year, replacing former Commissioner Ronnie Metsker after he resigned, says 2020 has been “the most interesting election” of her career.

Post editor Kyle Palmer talked with Schmidt just days before the deadline to register to vote, Tuesday, Oct. 13. The entire interview is embedded below, or you can watch it on the Post’s Facebook page. What follows are some highlighted takeaways with timestamps.

The Post is committed to informing voters about the voting process this year. Read our earlier Election FAQ.

There are three ways to cast your ballot in Johnson County. [1:40]

All voters in Kansas can cast ballots in one of three ways: early by mail, early in person and in person on Election Day. Schmidt said that three-pronged system has been in place in Kansas since 1996 but is only getting more attention this year because of the unprecedented demand for mail-in ballots. She said they expect more voters in Johnson County to vote by mail for the 2020 presidential election than in person.

Mail-in ballots will be mailed out to voters who have requested them on Wednesday, Oct. 14, and should arrive at voters’ mailboxes soon thereafter. Advanced in-person voting begins at 10 select locations around the county on Saturday, Oct. 17.

Voters voting by mail should return their ballots “as soon as possible.” [3:06]

Schmidt encourages voters who receive mail-in ballots not to wait to return them, but to fill out their ballot as soon as they can and mail them back. This will help avoid the issue of a voter’s mail-in ballot not being delivered to the county election office by Friday, Nov. 6, the last day mail-in ballots can be received in order to be counted. In addition, mail-in ballots must be postmarked no later than Election Day, Nov. 3.

Putting your mail-in ballot in the actual mail isn’t the only way to return it. [4:00]

For voters with concerns about just dropping their ballots in the mail, there are some options. Starting Saturday, Oct. 17, the county will have 8 secure drop boxes for voters to drop off their mail-in ballots. These drop boxes will be emptied daily by a bipartisan team that includes both one Democrat and one Republican with keys to open each drop box. Schmidt also said the county’s ballot drop boxes will be monitored “24 hours a day” between now and Election Day.

In addition, voters can drop off their mail-in ballots at any of the 10 early voting poll sites or turn it in at their assigned polling site on Election Day. Though Schmidt warns that mail-in ballots dropped off on Election Day will not be processed until the day after Election Day and would not be included in any Election Night totals that are announced.

Take extra care with your signature on your mail-in ballot. [5:30]

Schmidt said the primary way a mail-in ballot could be challenged (and potentially invalidated) is if the voter has not signed the back of the secure envelope in which the mail-in ballot is returned or if the voter’s signature does not match the signature the election office has on file for that voter.

“Remember, the voter is not standing in front of a poll worker when they are casting their ballot. So, the only way we know that that is your ballot and you voted it, is that you have to sign the outside of your envelope,” she said.

But Schmidt emphasized, even if your signature is challenged, your ballot will not be automatically “tossed out.” She says her office will make attempts at contacting any voter whose mail-in ballot has been flagged and give them a chance to “come in and rectify and resolve that issue” so they can be sure their vote is counted.

Still, Schmidt said any voter mailing in their ballot should “look twice” to make sure everything on their ballot is filled out correctly and it is signed.

If you’ve already requested a mail-in ballot but now want to vote in person, you can … but it’s more complicated. [7:35] 

If you go to vote in-person after having requested a mail-in ballot, you will have to cast a provisional ballot because state law does not allow voters to cast multiple ballots. Or as Schmidt says: “If you’ve gotten a ballot in the mail, you [already] have a ballot in our system.”

For those voters who may have requested a mail-in ballot weeks or months ago and are now thinking they’d rather vote in person, Schmidt encourages you to, instead, return your mail-in ballot to a polling site (either an early voting site or your assigned polling site on Election Day) and drop it off in person.

And again, the county’s ballot drop boxes, Schmidt said, give voters a way to “avoid the postal system” if they have concerns about their ballot being mailed to election officials on time.

If voters cast ballots early, then lines (and crowds) on Election Day may not be an issue. [9:00]

Eight ballot drop boxes and 10 early voting poll sites (three more than normal) give voters plenty of opportunity, Schmidt said, to vote early and thereby decrease the chance that voting sites on Election Day will see lines and big crowds, which could be potentially unsafe amid the ongoing pandemic.

On Election Day itself, the county will have nearly 180 polling sites open. Schmidt said election judges will have protocols for keeping voting machines sanitized after every voter uses them and voters will be spaced out in line as they wait to vote. The county also recently landed an $856,000 grant that will, among other things, go towards equipment and supplies to sanitize polling sites and increase the stipend for election workers.

Poll watchers must have official paper work, and voters should report acts of intimidation. [13:45]

In the first presidential debate earlier in October, President Trump encouraged his supporters to “go to polls and watch very carefully.” Critics saw this as a thinly veiled attempt at intimidating voters, especially in key battleground states.

Partisan poll watching is legal and happens frequently, but Schmidt said official poll watchers who have been designated by candidates must submit paperwork to election judges on site and will be issued ID badges. These official poll watchers must stay six feet away from the check-in table and cannot speak to voters while they are there. People cannot simply show up and demand to be allowed to monitor voters. She said if someone does that, they will be asked (or forced) to leave.

Schmidt said concerns over voter intimidation in Johnson County have been “rare” historically — she said voters and campaigns here have largely “played by the rules” — but if any voter feels like they are encountering trouble at their polling site or feel intimidated on Election Day while casting their ballot, they should call the Johnson County Election Office at 913-715-6800.

Results on Election Night in JoCo could become clear relatively early. [15:30]

Many election experts are anticipating a potentially drawn-out vote-counting process for the presidential election. But that may not be the case for results in Johnson County.

With the unusually high number of mail-in ballots this year, and an emphasis on early voting (the majority of voters in Johnson County are expected to have already cast ballots by Nov. 3), Schmidt said the county could have a pretty clear picture of results relatively soon after polls close on Election Night. Early voting tallies, from both votes cast by mail and those cast at early in-person voting sites, will be reported out in the first wave of tabulations, which Schmidt said should be released by 8 p.m. on Election Night.

Those won’t be final results, but Schmidt said those early returns may give voters and candidates a “good idea” of how races are trending. Either way, she says what voters can expect on Election Night is “that every ballot we have received here in our office will be counted and reported.”