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Law gives Kansas counties new option for polling sites

By ROXANA HEGEMANApril 17, 2019

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A new law gives Kansas counties the legal option of letting voters cast ballots at any polling site within their county, but spotty internet service and aging voting equipment is expected to curtail its availability in many places, election officials say.

The legislation signed this week by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly aims to expand and improve voting opportunities in Kansas by giving local election officials the discretion to allow all registered voters on Election Day to cast their ballot at any polling place in their county, rather than only at an assigned polling site.

It is still unclear how many counties will take advantage of it, particularly some rural ones with remote voting sites or those counties that still rely primarily on paper ballots. Some counties also have older voting equipment that is not capable of producing different ballots with local races at all locations.

“That is why it was written to be voluntary, not mandatory, because not everybody has the technology to be able to do it,” said Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman.

The bipartisan bill traces its origins to Sedgwick County, the state’s second largest county, where Lehman and local officials championed it through the legislative process. It was sponsored by Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat.

“This is a major step forward to insuring votes will be counted and people can participate in democracy and it is making voting easier,” said Faust-Goudeau, calling it “one of the best pieces of legislation” to come out of the Legislature this session.

Sedgwick County, which replaced all its voting equipment in 2017, will now allow voters to cast their ballots at any polling place within its boundaries. It is also developing its own county-specific app for the 2020 elections that will allow Sedgwick County voters to type in their addresses and see all the polling places within a radius around where they live.

“We saw this need with our voters at Sedgwick County with people going to the wrong place on Election Day and getting part of their ballot counted and having to vote provisionally,” Lehman said. “This was a way for us to reduce the provisional ballots being issued in the first place and then it was a way for us to get those voters’ candidates on their ballot that they were eligible to vote for.”

In the 2018 general election, Sedgwick County only partially counted the provisional ballots of more than 1,100 people who cast their ballots at the wrong polling site. Only the statewide races were counted on those ballots because those voters were not eligible to vote for the local races that appeared on ballots cast in the wrong precinct, Lehman said.

Under the new law, voting machines regardless of their location within the participating county will be allowed to print ballots tailored to each voter’s precinct. Electronic poll books used at check-in that are connected to the internet would ensure a voter did not vote at multiple locations in the same election.

That can be a problem in more rural places like Butler County, where internet service is spotty in the northern and southern parts of the county, said Butler County Clerk Tatum Stafford.

“We are still considering it,” Stafford said, “I think it is a great idea, I really want to do.”

In Shawnee County, Election Systems Specialist Edith Zarger said she did not know whether a determination had been made yet. It already has 98 polling places scattered throughout the county, and one concern is whether some polling locations would be overwhelmed if a lot of voters from other precincts go to them.

Ford County drew national attention during the 2018 general election after its only polling location in Dodge City was moved outside city limits. The county plans to have at least two polling sites in Dodge City for the 2020 election, in addition to others that were already located in rural parts of the county.

“As soon as I can be assured by the State that poll books would be secured across the county, yes that is something Ford County would offer. But only when I can be assured of security,” Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox said in an email.

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