Here’s what poll watchers see when they observe elections in Kansas

By Monica Springer | The Journal

Unpaid, partisan volunteers play a valuable part in the election process by keeping an eye on the voting process. Mostly seen in urban areas, poll watchers can observe election workers, keep track of who is voting and observe the votes being tallied after the polls close.

This is part six of an eight-part series about elections and voting in Kansas.

Wanting to fulfill a civic duty, volunteering for altruistic reasons and sometimes just being asked to are some of the reasons why some Kansans spend Election Day volunteering to be poll watchers.

Poll watchers, officially known as poll agents, are partisan volunteers who are recruited by each county’s political parties or from candidates’ campaigns to observe poll workers, keep track of who is voting in an election and observe the votes being tallied after the polls close.

Poll watchers differ from poll workers in that poll workers are nonpartisan workers who help with Election Day tasks, such as setting up voting machines in the early morning hours, checking voters in, handing out ballots and then closing the election site at the end of the day. Both poll workers and poll watchers play a valuable part in the election process.

“There are some things that you should do,” says Ethel Edwards, a Democrat and retired educator from Topeka who has been both a poll watcher and poll worker. “You should vote. You should help with elections. You should know the system.”

Kim Borchers, the Kansas Republican Party’s national committeewoman, says poll watchers are mainly seen in urban areas. 

“The Republican Party has always encouraged people to be poll watchers,” Borchers says. “We just think it’s the right thing to do.” 

Public records show that there were five poll watchers registered in Shawnee County this year; 44 in Johnson County; 28 in Wyandotte County and 16 in Sedgwick County. In more rural counties, such as Finney and Ford counties in western Kansas, there were no registered poll watchers so far in 2022.

An associate professor of political science at Kansas State University, John Fliter served as a poll watcher and helped organize volunteers for the Riley County Democratic Party from 2002 to 2015. Photo by Luke Townsend

Trust by verify

Stephanie Kassen, a Republican who works in accounting management in Olathe, decided to become a poll watcher this year after a family friend who ran for office asked her to. After raising their kids together and attending the same church, Kassen didn’t hesitate to say yes.

She says she wasn’t necessarily concerned about voter fraud – in her little area of the world, she thinks poll workers are honorable and trustworthy – but her profession in accounting leads her to trust but verify numbers.

In the August primary, Kassen watched the end of the voting process and arrived about 20 minutes before the polls closed. She observed the poll workers and kept an eye on the vote tallies to make sure the math added up – and it did.

Kassen says she spent about an hour at the polling site. She says the poll workers treated the process consistently and that she saw no bias or anything out of the ordinary. 

“It was interesting and kind of cool to watch, to be able to appreciate the sincerity of the poll workers and how invested they were in the voting process and the democratic process,” Kassen says. “It was refreshing and encouraging.”

John Fliter is an associate professor of political science at Kansas State University and teaches classes on constitutional law, civil rights and liberties. He says he’s always been a political activist and from 2002 to 2015, he was involved with the Riley County Democratic Party as a poll watcher and helped organize volunteers. 

“I care about what’s going on in the world,” Fliter says. “I wanted to make sure we had elected leaders who would pursue an agenda whose values I agree with.” 

Fliter says if a party can get enough volunteers on Election Day, the process works like this: County parties will have one or two poll watchers working at a specific polling station. Sometimes one person works all day, and sometimes two or three poll watchers take shifts throughout the day.

Each poll watcher has a list of registered voters and a list of unaffiliated voters, which they receive from their county’s political party.

Once a person comes in to vote, that person will announce their name to the poll worker. The poll watcher observes this process, checks off the voter’s name from their list, and takes note of whether the voter receives a regular or provisional ballot.

Fliter says in Riley County, someone from the Democratic Party headquarters would give him a fresh list of voters’ names three times a day – at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. – and that person would also pick up his list of crossed-off voters.

From there, Fliter says the Democratic Party would start making phone calls at its headquarters to registered Democrats on the list who had not voted yet that day.

“You tell people, ‘Hey, you haven’t gotten out to vote yet. Please remember it’s an important election. Please get out and vote.’ And then hang up,” Fliter says of the phone calls. 

Like Kassen, Diane Eflin volunteered to be a poll watcher after being asked by a candidate running for office. Eflin, a Republican, lives in Lenexa with her husband and five children. She says she and her husband encourage their kids to get involved in the community.

“One of the things that we teach our children … is that we all have a civic responsibility. We need to serve others in our organizations, our church, our family, and our community,” Eflin says.

Eflin says she spent an hour getting the final vote counts for a few candidates at her polling location at the end of the primary in August.

“I was given a copy of the numbers so I could write down what I needed, and it was done. It was very simple,” she says. “I would encourage others to get involved. Being a poll watcher is an easy way to be engaged in the election process.”

Marg Yaroslaski, who teaches communication and leadership at Independence Community College, and Sam Smith, director of communications at the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, have volunteered as poll watchers in previous elections.

While living in Dodge City in 2016, Yaroslaski served as a poll watcher after Ford County Democrats asked her to volunteer.

Yaroslaski says in a city where Hispanics make up 60% of the population, there was a concern among Democrats in Ford County that a number of Hispanics were being turned away from the polls. Yaroslaski says she witnessed nothing out of the ordinary and that no Hispanic voters were turned away while she was a poll watcher.

“When I got there, it felt like people were just trying hard to help people vote and be fair about it,” Yaroslaski says. “I think it kind of renewed my faith that those people were there to facilitate a process that they believed in.”

Smith, who lives in Wichita, first became a poll worker in 2017, and was a poll watcher in the 2020 presidential election.

“I became an election worker because I felt like I wanted to get involved and do something for my community,” he says.

He became a poll watcher, he says, because he heard reports of voter intimidation in election lines and electioneering going on at polling sites around the country. Smith was already volunteering for the Democratic Party in Kansas, working the phones to make sure voters knew how and where to vote.

He says he saw nothing out of the ordinary during his time as a poll watcher.

“There was no intimidation that I saw,” Smith says.

“One of the things that we teach our children … is that we all have a civic responsibility. We need to serve others in our organizations, our church, our family, and our community,”

Diane Eflin, Lenexa Republican

Kansans’ perspective on voter fraud

Fliter, the professor at K-State, grew up in Ohio, moved to California for his undergraduate degree and then Maryland for his postgraduate degree. He says he is not concerned about voter fraud in Kansas and has never been.

“Anyone who votes or anyone who has worked the polls on Election Day knows that it’s almost impossible to do in-person voter fraud,” Fliter says. “In-person voter fraud is almost nonexistent.”

Edwards also says she’s not worried about voter fraud. She noted that voting machines are not connected to the internet – they are standalone machines – and that the process is secure.

“Voter fraud doesn’t exist, not in Shawnee County,” Edwards says. “I just don’t know how it could happen, not with the training we have, not with the machines that we have, not with the checks and balances that we have.”

Fliter says national reports of election workers being threatened, as well as election officials in other states who are pressured to overturn votes are disturbing to him.

“It doesn’t bode well for democracy. It can discourage people from getting out to vote. Why go out and vote if you really, truly believe that elections are fraudulent and there’s massive voter fraud?

“There has to be accountability. You can’t just play a game with our elections. This is the most important part of representative democracy. If you’re going to claim voter fraud, you better have evidence to back it up,” Fliter says.

He added: “It’s hurting our democracy when people believe that there’s massive voter fraud.”

Eflin says she’s not necessarily concerned about voter fraud in Kansas, but thinks the process should be observed and checked. “There will always be those who think they are above the law who might try to do the wrong thing. I think we should always be diligent to check and double-check the process,” she says.

John Carlin served as governor of Kansas from 1979 to 1987. He taught classes in executive leadership and conflicting values as a visiting professor at K-State and retired from that position in March. 

Carlin says throughout his career in politics, he never questioned the integrity of elections in Kansas or the competency of the secretary of state.

“We’re blessed to be in a state like Kansas,” Carlin says. “I’ve never heard of a bad experience in Kansas, voting or of fraud. It’s a solid system we’ve had forever that’s served us well.”

A need for education

As a poll watcher in 2020, Smith, who lives in Wichita, sent a report to Kansas Democrats in which he summarized his findings. He noted that at his polling station, 17% of the ballots – 113 in total – were provisional ballots. “That seems high to me,” he said in his report.

He also noted that provisional ballots were often cast by people of color, those in lower-income households and by voters with lower levels of educational attainment. Typically, provisional voters did not understand the voting process, or that they must change their address of record when they move to keep registration current. Many didn’t know where their polling place was, and some young voters didn’t understand that they must register before an election.

Smith suggested in his report that voter education be provided in schools. “Every high school in Kansas should do a much better job than it is currently doing to get each student to register and prepare to become a voter,” Smith wrote. “The process needs to be demystified.”

Learn more: What does a poll agent do?

Poll watchers, also called poll agents, are volunteer positions and are not paid. There are two types: poll watchers who are authorized by law to act as poll agents or who are poll watchers due to held positions, and appointed poll watchers.

People can volunteer to be a poll watcher in writing at their county election office or by filling out a form online at the secretary of state’s website (see for more information).

Some people are automatically considered a poll agent, according to the Kansas secretary of state’s office.

They include:

• A state or county party chair

• A chair of a committee formed to support or oppose a question-submitted election

• A candidate for office, including a write-in candidate

• A precinct committeeman or committeewoman

According to public records from Shawnee County, poll agents must:

• Carry their completed poll agent appointment form and produce it upon request by an election official

• Act in accordance with policies adopted by the county election officer and the supervising judge at the polling place

• Comply with state laws and regulations and local rules applicable to poll agents

• Wear a badge identifying them as an observer 

• Be a registered Kansas voter or a member of a candidate’s family

Poll agents may:

• Observe the voting process at the polling place where appointed

• Observe the canvass

• Request to be shown a ballot at the original canvass on Election Day

• If acting as an appointed poll agent, be at least 14 years old.

Poll agents may not:

• Approach within three feet of a voting booth or a table used by an election board

• Touch or handle a ballot

• Participate in the administration of ballots or ballot counting

• Hinder or obstruct any voter when entering or exiting a polling place or while voting

• Hinder or obstruct an election board in the performance of its duties

This article was republished here with the permission of: KLC Journal