Officials overseeing Kansas elections provide a view behind the curtain

By Jerry LaMartina | The Journal

Many residents don’t fully understand the behind-the-scenes work required to manage and secure elections, some county election officials say. But the questions about election security being fueled by a small group of Kansans might provide an opportunity for more to observe and understand the vote-counting process.

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

It’s been said that free and fair elections are the bedrock of our republic.

Yet many people don’t fully understand the behind-the-scenes work required to manage and secure elections, some Kansas county election officials say. Doubts about the electoral system’s fairness, security and efficiency increased after the 2016 and 2020 general elections and continue in some quarters.

Are elections fair and secure? Is the public confident they are? Election officials in four of the state’s 105 counties shared their thoughts on the subject with The Journal.

Johnson County Election Commissioner Fred Sherman stands in the county’s warehouse in Olathe with 1,860 voting machines on the right and a smaller number of vote-counting scanners. (Dave Kaup

Didn’t fully understand ‘until I got here’

Fred Sherman, election commissioner for the Johnson County Election Office, says the vast majority of voters have confidence in the election process, but a vocal minority started raising concerns about election integrity in the 2016 general election. 

These concerns became “turbocharged” in the 2020 general election, he says, and have created a lot of doubt and confusion about the election process.

State legislatures determine election rules. While “everybody does it basically the same at a high level,” he says, procedures vary from state to state regarding mail-in and advance voting, for example. 

“Security and checks and balances in place are extensive and thorough, and well thought out in every state.” 

Johnson County surveys its residents every other year on various aspects of county services and did so in early 2021, he says. Respondents ranked their satisfaction with elections among the top categories, which they typically do. That’s based partly on the state’s structure of advance, mail-in and Election Day voting but also on how the county meets voters where they are through a range of voting methods. 

(Credit: Craig Lindeman)

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in 2020, the county received 150,000 mail-in ballots for the general election – three times its normal number of mail-in ballots. Kansas is a no-excuse state for mail-in voting, meaning any registered voter can apply to vote by mail without offering a reason. Voters must have a state photo ID, typically a driver’s license, and their signatures are verified. 

“We account for every voter and ballot,” Sherman says. “One voter casts one ballot.”

Despite his view that most voters have confidence in the system, he also thinks most people don’t realize how much detailed work goes into ensuring elections run smoothly and securely. A few take a simplistic view and say, “You only work two days a year.”

“And that’s not the case,” Sherman says. “We’ll have 146 polling sites on Election Day coming up. So, just imagine if you had to open 146 retail locations all on the same day and expect to serve over 100,000 people – 10,000 people an hour – and you can’t make any mistakes. What would you have to do to prepare for that? The amount of details and preplanning and deployment of people, staff and resources to conduct an election is overwhelming. … Even I’ll admit I didn’t understand that as just a consumer when I voted until I got here into elections and saw the inner workings behind the curtains.”

Sherman started at the Johnson County Election Office in 2000 after working for several city and county governments in planning and zoning, development review and city administration for 12 years. He dealt with a lot of policy issues in those jobs and joined with colleagues to debate issues and seek consensus. Elections, though, are “much more process and procedure and legally driven.”

“It’s still public service, but it’s a completely different arena,” Sherman says. “It’s challenging and interesting. If I was an actor when I was doing land use planning, it’s almost like doing stand-up comedy or improv, and this is almost like doing formal, Shakespearean theater. You’re still acting, but it’s a completely different language and delivery and tenor.”

Workers with the Johnson County Kansas Election Office in Olathe manually count already audited ballots from a previous election to verify election machinery is in order. They are (from left) Mark Wilson, Doug Dunn and Charlie Roberts. (Credit: Dave Kaup)

‘Come and watch’ the process

Gina Shores, the Morton County clerk and chief election officer, shares Sherman’s views. Election security is sound, but some people “follow what’s in the news and on social media” and form opinions to the contrary. Morton County, bordered on the west by Colorado and the south by Oklahoma, follows state law in requiring voters to present identification at polling places whether before or on Election Day and matching their signatures to its database. At least two poll workers handle each ballot. 

Shores thinks if more people who doubt the system’s security or efficiency would “have more discussions with poll workers or people on the counting board and question them about any concerns, I think 100% they would feel like the elections were run smoothly and not necessarily what’s portrayed in the media.”

“Come and watch the counting process,” she says. “See how it works instead of just believing what you hear out there. Media reports are a little unfair, but everybody has a right to wonder how the process is done. I just wish they would be more hands-on.” 

Serving as an Election Day volunteer also helps residents learn about the process while giving valuable help to election officials, she says.

Although Morton County has enough volunteers, she says, counties across the state “have a hard time getting poll workers who want to spend the whole day.”

“They’re busier and may not want to be so wrapped up in the process when elections are so highly debated,” Shores says. “They don’t want to be in the spotlight, not just in elections but for other boards.”

Shores says she wishes the public could better understand the complexity of managing elections and ensuring their security. Election officials must keep up with changing legislation, which adds to that complexity. She also wants voters to “understand we’re in our position because we care about politics” and want elections to “run smoothly, fairly and accurately to the best of our ability.”

The Sedgwick County Election Office sits inside the old county courthouse in downtown Wichita. Photo by Jeff Tuttle

Quietly doing the work

Angela Caudillo, election commissioner for the Sedgwick County Election Office, said in an email interview that election offices including Sedgwick County’s have implemented security measures for years, including duty separation, chain of custody and secured access. Her office is “constantly testing and validating equipment and processes to make sure that our safeguards are effective and our elections stay safe, secure and accurate.”

She says most people she talks with are very comfortable with the county’s methods of ensuring election security. Voters justifiably want secure elections and want to make sure their vote counts.

“Elections are the foundation of our democratic processes. For those who have questions, we do our best to provide information and explanations to help people get familiar with the process. We encourage residents of Sedgwick County to join us on Election Day as an election worker. The training program provides a better understanding of how elections are managed in the state of Kansas.”

Angela Caudillo, Sedgwick County Election Commissioner

When residents take an active role in government, it’s encouraging and indispensable. Workers at the polls “are your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers and family members” who all “help to keep elections safe, secure, fair and accurate by the work they do, and by sharing what they know with others.”

The public is taking more interest in election security, Caudillo says. Kansas recently enacted a law to strengthen election security. For decades, the state’s election officials “have been quietly doing this important work with all its complexity.” These officials are “practiced, trained, knowledgeable, professional and trustworthy.”

“We take every single ballot and treat it as if it’s our own,” says Lisa Lusker, Crawford County’s clerk and chief election officer. Photo by Jeff Tuttle

Treating every ballot ‘as if it’s our own’

Lisa Lusker started working as Crawford County’s clerk and chief election officer about a year ago. Elections are the most public duties of a clerk.

“I am pretty passionate about people’s voices being heard and the will of the people being done,” Lusker says. “People’s opinions need to be recorded and heard and given through their vote.”

Lusker echoes the view that Kansas elections are extremely secure despite having been “called into question by a small group of people.” She thinks that small group doesn’t understand exactly how elections work in Kansas.

“From the second we start an election prep, we are working with a system that is secured by the secretary of state’s office,” she says. “We trust them. Their database is where we get … the system we use for voter registration.”

That preparation includes running test ballots to check voting machines’ accuracy before and after elections. The tests confirm accuracy “100% of the time,” she says. But if the tests were to detect any error, “we’d go back and check.”

Crawford County’s election office hires an audit board, typically with two Democrats and two Republicans, to conduct post-election audits by randomly choosing races to recount using guidance from the secretary of state’s office, Lusker says. The board looks at every ballot in the race, and “they almost always match exactly. … Some are off one or two, but that’s human error. … Our eyes get tired. We get fatigued.”

Lusker thinks hand recounts aren’t the best way to confirm accuracy, but she supports doing them and comparing the results to machines. State law requires hand recounts when race results are within a specified margin.

Another wish that she has from her vantage point in southeast Kansas is that people would understand that the county’s election process and its voting machines aren’t “hooked to the internet.”

“There’s nothing nefarious going on in the clerk’s office. We’re regular people that want to do our jobs and do it well. … We encourage people to get involved. Come watch one of our audits and ask questions. … It’s a great learning experience for them and teaching experience for me.”

Lusker says she’s heard Crawford County voters say they trust the county’s election office but not those of neighboring counties or states.

“It’s easy to point fingers at things you don’t know about,” she says. “We take every single ballot and treat it as if it’s our own.”

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