Election officials enter the run-up to the Nov. 3 general election largely confident that everything will unfold smoothly. But disruptions fostered in part by the COVID-19 pandemic mean voters should make necessary preparations and exercise extra diligence.
Little about this year’s road to the Nov. 3 general election feels normal to many voters. The COVID-19 pandemic keeps scrambling daily life. A particularly contentious partisan divide is bringing political confrontation to urban streets and local government meetings as rival – and sometimes armed – protesters square off about Black Lives Matter and mask ordinances.
Yet despite such rancor and discord, or perhaps because of it, 2020 is shaping up to be a year for increased voter engagement, even if going to the polls looks a bit different for many Kansans than in years past.
Election officials in Johnson County, with about 434,000 registered voters as of August, expect more than 300,000 of them to participate in the general election, about double the turnout in the August primary, according to Fred Sherman, deputy election security commissioner for the county’s election office.
About 84,150 mail-in ballots were received in the August primary, up sixfold from the nearly 13,600 in 2018 and up sevenfold from about 11,500 in 2016.
“In Johnson County, we’ve never had this volume of voting by mail,” Sherman says. “We’re seeing record participation. We’re trying to process their mail-in ballots correctly and make sure voters sign the envelope we provide. Then we verify the signature with the signature on file. It’s a secure system in person and by mail.”
While casting a vote in an election almost always requires an investment of time and forethought, this year might require more diligence from voters. Many Kansans could be voting in ways and at times that are outside their comfort zones, and it will be up to them to make sure they do what it takes to have their votes counted.
Several factors are driving confusion and uncertainty, including expected increases in advance mail-in voting and doubts about whether the U.S. Postal Service can handle the volume of ballots; deadlines to request and return mail-in ballots; concerns about fraud; worries about whether voters will be safe casting their votes in person because of the pandemic; and lack of familiarity about alternatives to voting in person.
Still, voters should take heart that representatives of the Kansas secretary of state, election officials in three disparate Kansas counties and the League of Women Voters of Kansas all express confidence that the system will work as intended.
Here are some key deadlines for voters to keep in mind:
• You must register to vote by Oct. 13.
• Advance voting in person allowed to begin Oct. 14.
• Mail-in ballots begin to go out Oct. 14.
• You can request a mail-in ballot up until Oct 27.
• Advance voting in person closes at noon Nov. 2.
• Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3, and polls will be open from at least 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.
• Mail-in ballots must be postmarked on or before Nov. 3 and received in local election offices by Nov. 6.
• The deadline for election offices to finish counting is Nov. 17.
The unusual circumstances surrounding the election mean that voters should pay special heed to the usual warnings that the results that are reported on election night are preliminary.
“We always tell folks that results on election night are always considered unofficial,” says Katie Koupal, spokesperson for Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s office. “We don’t call races. They’re unofficial because advance by mail and provisional still come in and can come in for three days.”
IS POSTAL SERVICE UP TO THE TASK?
Voting by mail, in which voters request ballots, and advance in person voting (in some jurisdictions called absentee voting) at designated polling places are both expected to increase nationally this year.
In Kansas, anyone can request a ballot to vote by mail by completing an application. If you filled out a mail ballot application for the primary, you must complete another application to receive your mail-in ballot for the general election. To apply for permanent advance voting status, the voter must have a permanent physical disability or illness or have been diagnosed as having a permanent illness.
Kansas does not hold all-mail elections when a candidate is on the ballot but does so only with special questions for voters to decide. Advance mail-in voting in this year’s primary brought “no widespread, systematic issues in Kansas,” Koupal says.
“There are incidental issues that pop up, but the Postal Service does a good job working with local election officials to solve problems,” she says.
Schwab’s office has been mulling these issues for some time. The bulk of Kansas mail is routed through distribution centers in Wichita; Kansas City and Platte County, Missouri; and Amarillo, Texas. Two mail-sorting machines were removed from Wichita this summer, but the Postal Service “gave us their word that they’ll be able to maintain the efficiency and manage it effectively,” Koupal says.
Statewide mail-in ballot return rates in the primaries have been trending upward: 82.9% in August, up from 58.6% in 2018 and 67.3% in 2016. The secretary of state’s office had no information on return rates for the 2018 and 2016 general elections.
Voter participation in primaries overall is rising, with 2020’s turnout of 34.2% representing a high water mark from the 27.1% in the 2018 primary and 23.5% in the 2016 primary.
Presidential election years generally bring the highest turnouts in general elections, followed by midterms. Two years ago, 56.4% of registered voters turned out for the midterm, while 67.4% voted in the 2016 general election. That’s about the same as the 2000 and 2012 presidential elections, but less than 70%-plus that turned out in 2004 and 2008.
Teresa Briggs, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, takes a more tentative view of the Postal Service’s ability to handle a big increase in voting by mail.
“I really just have to hope that they can,” Briggs says. “I have no insight or inside info either way. It concerns me when I see pictures of mail stack up and not processed for weeks.”
THE LOCAL VIEW FROM SEWARD, STANTON AND JOHNSON COUNTIES
For the most part, local election officials aren’t apprehensive about administering a general election in a pandemic.
The election office in Seward County, whose estimated population was about 21,400 in 2019, is “always pretty prepared” for any difficulties an election might bring, says Stacia Long, county clerk/election official. The office in Liberal received substantially more advance mail-in ballot applications as of early September than for a typical general election.
For the August primary, Seward County got back 71% of the advance mail-in ballots it sent, up from 56% in both the 2018 and 2016 primaries. In the 2018 general election, 82% were returned and in 2016, 83%. A substantial increase in voter turnout to 80%, for example, would be “absolutely not even close to difficult” for the office to handle, Long says, though it would take more time to process and count votes.
One of the biggest concerns is the role of third-party voter organizations, nongovernmental groups that work to get voters registered and set up to vote.
Long says some of those groups may “put out misinformation” and send mail-in ballot applications to voters who have already received mail-in ballot applications. Some voters depend on the organizations to forward their applications to the election office, though, and the organizations want to help people register. But voters should take care to verify all information from third parties.
Stanton County Clerk Sandy Barton says her office in Johnson City, about 15 miles from the Colorado state line in southwest Kansas, had received only one phone call from a voter as of early September about mailings that third parties sent to voters. The county had an estimated population of about 2,000 in 2019. Barton expects the biggest change leading up to this year’s general election to be more mail-in ballots.
She says voters should contact their local election officials before they start filling out forms from third parties that arrive partially completed, because that information could contradict voters’ information on file. She, too, expects the Postal Service will have no problems handling more mail for the election.
When it comes to in-person voting in advance or on Election Day, one of the challenges facing election officials will be maintaining social distancing, Johnson County’s Sherman says. Election workers will wear masks and use other personal protective equipment, and voters will be provided with a dual use stylus for a touchless voting process.
Sherman says his office has received questions that have been “all over the board, some of it driven by national news stories about the timeliness and security of the U.S. mail service.
“Some voters are concerned about the timing. There’s a lot of voter lack of knowledge about how it works in Kansas. It becomes very confusing for some of them.”
Sherman stressed the importance of voters marking their ballots correctly, signing the return envelopes and returning them as soon as possible (ballots must be postmarked by election day and arrive no later than three days after the election). Most Johnson County voters have relied on in-person advance voting in the past, although that figures to change this year.
RISK OF FRAUD WITH MAIL-IN VOTING
In response to the prospect of many Americans voting by mail, President Donald Trump and members of his administration have made false claims about the likelihood of fraud influencing the outcome of the election.
Research from a variety of organizations suggests that risk of vote-by-mail fraud is limited. The Brookings Institution reports that rates of mail-in voting fraud are minimal and “the benefits outweigh the risks.” Numerous studies of voting fraud generally have concluded the risk is slight, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The organization also reports that no evidence of significant fraud from mail-in voting exists and that the notion of mail-in voting fraud was “a false narrative.” The Heritage Foundation reports 14 cases of attempted fraud in Kansas from 2005 through 2017, mostly for people voting more than once in the same election.
“There’s always a risk (of fraud), but it is a felony, so people probably won’t do it through voting,” Koupal says. “If voters ask for an advance ballot, they can still go to the polling place to deliver it as a provisional ballot, and it’s counted as part of the county canvass. In Kansas, anyone can vote provisional, so we have higher numbers than other states.”
Briggs says fraud with mail-in ballots is extremely rare. She sees arguments to the contrary as “a point to make people think twice before doing it. I don’t anticipate that.” Long and Barton also say the risk of fraud is minimal with increased mail-in voting.
OTHER CONCERNS LEADING UP TO THE GENERAL
The secretary of state’s office also is concerned about outreach activities by third-party voter advocacy groups, Koupal says. These organizations play a role in encouraging voting but can also confuse voters”who wonder whether they’re registered to vote.”
Third parties do provide useful services, she says, such as reminding voters to register and sometimes working as middlemen by offering to have voters send required forms to them to forward to election offices on behalf of voters. Third-party services are legal “but if third parties were filling out voters’ forms, that’s shaky legal ground.”
Third-party registrations can come from a variety of places, including social media applications that run voter registration drives. The most prominent is on Facebook, Koupal said, but there are similar efforts on Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter.
A third-party group that’s drawn significant attention in Kansas this year is the Center for Voter Information out of Springfield, Missouri, which has sent out two large mailings to Kansas voters that contain voter registration forms and advance mail-in ballot applications. Some of those forms arrive with parts already filled in, sparking individual and media inquiries to election officials about whether they’re a scam. (They’re not.)
But Koupal says the group’s efforts to increase voter registration, aimed primarily at the young, people of color and unmarried women are proving vexing to Kansas voters.
“If you recall, many of our local election offices sent out advance by-mail ballot applications to voters, so thousands of Kansans have already requested their advance by-mail ballots,” Koupal says. “This is causing a lot of duplicative forms and information being sent to local election offices. We are also getting a lot of calls from voters who want to know why an out-of-state entity is sending them these types of mailers.”
Schwab is also concerned about the risk of voter disenfranchisement among homeless and low-income people and college students, Koupal says.
Kansas is a local control state for elections, meaning that each county decides what works best for it within the parameters of state law. Because of greater uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Schwab’s office has stepped up its communication with voters through media interviews and newsletters about their options. Voters have been asking whether mail-in ballots are secure. They are, Koupal says, and “that’s where we’re talking about signature and photo ID requirements.” Another common question from voters is whether they can still go to their polling places to vote in person, which they can.
Election offices have increased the number of polling site volunteers and pandemic precautions toward that end. Schwab’s office recently bought 180 drop boxes for counties for the general election with some of the $4.6 million it had received from the federal CARES Act. Nearly 80 counties requested two drop boxes, 12 counties requested one, one received three and Johnson County got seven. That money also paid for PPE kits, stylus pens with tips for electronics on one end and ink on the other, hand sanitizer and protective shields for all polling sites.
“We saw in the primary that voters returned ballots through means other than the U.S. Postal Service, such as election offices in person, secure drop boxes or polling places,” Koupal says, adding this is expected to continue in the general election.
The secretary of state’s website has a service called VoterView, which provides registration information, a ballot tracker, a polling locator and sample ballots.
The League of Women Voters has continued and expanded its efforts to communicate with voters, including TV ads to remind voters about mail-in voting and tell them that feeling uncomfortable about voting in person is not a reason to skip voting.
Briggs advises voters to exercise their own due diligence and not rely on advice from friends and neighbors or what they read online.
“They should do their own research on candidates and issues, and just make sure they are getting reliable information and not just believing the first thing they hear.”
After all, in the end, it’s that voter’s vote, and it’s the only one they have to make count.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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