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OVERLAND PARK, KS - County elections officials state-wide could expand citizen participation in elections by asserting their role as voter advocates, a new report issued by the ACLU of Kansas said.
The report also urged elections officials to champion relatively simple and readily affordable reforms such as expanded in-person early voting and election-day registration.
The ACLU of Kansas researched policies and procedures of all 105 of the state’s county elections officials in compiling the report, “All Democracy is Local: The Impact of County Officials on Citizen Participation in Kansas elections.” The report asks officials to exercise more authority in defense and expansion of voting rights and to implement reforms proven successful in nearly 20 states.
The ACLU-KS sent a survey and a Kansas Open Records Act (KORA) request to all 105 county clerks in Kansas. The county clerks had the option of completing the short survey or fulfilling the open records request. Eighty-five filled out the survey. Seven counties declined to fill out the survey, and instead said they’d respond to the KORA request. Thirteen counties did not respond at all.
“Our report offers perhaps the most in-depth exploration of Kansas voting rights issues you’ll find anywhere,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas. “But we also offer solutions and encourage county elections officials to address corrosive and embedded voter participation issues.”
Kansas, for example, ranked 40th nationally for the percentage of eligible voters actually registered, 34th in voter turnout, (the 2016 general election) 43rd in terms of how many mail-in ballots get rejected, and 46th in voter representation, a measurement of how closely the cross-section of actual voters represent the state’s demographics.
Kansas’ patchwork quilt of standards gives election officials great influence over elections, but also, great influence in strengthening our democracy. County election officials could lift Kansas from its place as one of the most difficult states in which to vote to one where voting participation is encouraged.
“The job of county elections officials is much more than just counting votes,” the report said, “it is to foster a culture where democracy thrives.”
Most Kansans really do want to vote – despite the political rancor they see in news coverage – and they will vote when arbitrary barriers are removed. Participation increases as access improves.
Said Kubic, “The achievement standard for the men and women serving as county elections officials should be climbing registrations and a simultaneous decrease in the reliance on provisional ballots.”
The report’s findings include:
• Although some counties begin early voting periods 20 days before the election, no county offers the full 20 days of early voting allowed by law;
• For the 2018 primary election, only 14 of the 105 Kansas counties made early voting available on the Saturday before Election Day; 28 did so for the general election. Only 22 counties offered early voting at times outside of normal business hours;
• The three Kansas Counties that take all of these steps (early voting, voting outside normal business hours and multiple early voting locations) have participation rates of about 59 percent, 5 percentage points higher than counties that don’t;
• Counties with higher voter turnout assign lower numbers of voters per polling place;
• Kansas law allows for the 180,000 or the 7 percent of people with disabilities to vote curbside but it’s generally a well-kept secret. Inquiries into the training provided by counties to poll workers on this subject turned up only one (1) county that addressed the issue in their training materials (Barber County);
• Forty-six of the 87 county elections officials responding were unable to describe any efforts to engage populations in their counties that have low registration or turnout rates. College students frequently report difficulties registering and voting yet not a single county election official reported making any special outreach to college-aged Kansans;
• Kansas has a high number of provisional ballots – nearly 3 percent of the total ballots cast in the state in 2016 were provisional ballots, a rate three times the national average. Only three states had higher rates of provisional ballots cast.
The report also addressed so-called “voter fraud.”
“Abundant empirical evidence suggests that such fraud is non-existent,” the report said. “Kansas elections officials themselves reject the idea that fraud is either a major or minor concern. When asked for this report how significant an issue voter fraud was, 65 of the 77 county elections officials who responded said it was “not a problem at all” and not a single responding election official deemed voter fraud a “significant problem.”
In Kansas and elsewhere, elections officials have insisted on measures that stifle voter participation, citing fears of voter fraud. With those concerns now buried, county election officials can and should focus on getting more citizens involved.
That means, for example, applying some common sense to polling hours. The bulk of voting hours correspond with the hours where people are at work, instead of during evenings and weekends and the days and weeks leading up to elections. Poll hours should reflect this reality.
We also should not ask voters of color to vote at a police station, as Wyandotte County continues to do.
County elections officials also should immediately stop:
• Making sparing use of in-person early voting;
• Reducing the number of polling places sometimes down to ridiculous levels (Dodge City);
• Failing to conduct sufficient outreach with underrepresented voting blocs such as young people, the disabled, African Americans and Hispanics;
• Making registration difficult;
• Overusing provisional ballots and rejecting far too many votes that should be counted.
Simply put, votes that count in Sedgwick County should count in Johnson County and vice versa, and across the state. The report makes clear that Kansas needs uniform elections standards.
County election officials can make an immediate impact on turnout with the adoption of these tried and true reforms from the report which include:
• Early in-person voting offered at the 20-day maximum and including some evening and weekend voting opportunities;
• More polling places evenly distributed geographically and welcoming to people of all backgrounds and abilities;
• Beginning or expanding outreach efforts to groups underrepresented in the electorate especially younger Kansas, the disabled, African American Kansans and Hispanic Kansans;
• Enacting an Election Day Registration (EDR) statute in Kansas. EDR has been implemented in 19 states where it has increased voter turnout and decreased opportunities for voter fraud, and virtually eliminated the need for provisional ballots. States with EDR have the highest voter turnout rates in the country, consistently posting rates 11 percent to 12 percent higher than other states;
• Providing better guidance on provisional ballots so that there is less inconsistency, county to county, as to which ballots will be counted;
• Passing legislation allowing voters in Sedgwick, Johnson, Shawnee and Wyandotte County residents should be given the right to select their own elections officials (the Secretary of State now selects elections officials for the four, largest counties).
In sum, greater citizen participation should be each county election official’s goal, and our society’s aspirational goal.
“The more that citizens participate in a democracy, the stronger that democracy becomes,” the report reads. “Voting, one of our most cherished rights as Americans, is the lifeblood of a healthy democratic system. When the right to vote is not robustly defended, or when a culture that minimizes the importance of citizen participation in elections is cultivated, it saps the strength and soul of our democracy.”
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About the ACLU of Kansas: The ACLU of Kansas is the statewide affiliate of the national American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU of Kansas is dedicated to preserving and advancing the civil rights and legal freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For more information, visit our website at www.aclukansas.org.