WICHITA, Kansas — A conservative firebrand promoting President Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud oversees a Kansas election system that threw out at least three times as many ballots as any similarly sized state did, fueling concerns about massive voter suppression should its practices become the national standard.
Only six states — all among the top 10 in population — discarded more votes during the 2016 election than the 33rd-largest state of Kansas, according to data collected by the bipartisan U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency that certifies voting systems. Kansas’ 13,717 rejected ballots even topped the 13,461 from Florida, which has about seven times as many residents.
Critics of Kansas’ election system argue its unusually high number of discarded ballots reflects policies shaped over several elections that have resulted in many legitimate voters being kept off voter rolls in an effort to crack down on a few illegitimate ones.
There is particular attention on Kansas now because its secretary of state, Kris Kobach, is co-chairman of Trump's Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. The architect of strict election policies requiring voter ID and proof of citizenship, Kobach has suggested Kansas’ rules could become a national panacea for voter fraud, which Trump — without providing proof — blames for Hillary Clinton's popular vote victory.
“It is somewhat ironic that (Kobach) is claiming to really care about the integrity of voter rolls when this suggests that there may be a real problem that Kansas has with keeping voter rolls up to date,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program.
Kansas Elections Director Bryan Caskey argues it is difficult to compare states because their election laws differ and that Kansas officials are actually more aggressive than other states at getting ballots in the hands of would-be voters.
“I am understandably a little defensive about it because our routine is that if you walk in the door you get a ballot,” Caskey said. “... Even if there is no way that ballot is going to count, to at least give us a chance to do a little research to see if we can count it, and many states don't do that.”
Under federal law, almost all states are required to hand out a provisional ballot to anyone who shows up at a polling place but isn't listed on the voter rolls. The purpose of provisional ballots is to preserve the ballot until a voter's eligibility is determined and alert officials of a breakdown in election administration, so Weiser argues a high number of them could be “a red flag that something is quite wrong.”
Jason Kander, the former Democratic secretary of state in neighboring Missouri, says it's “not at all true” that poll workers in Kansas hand out provisional ballots to voters who would've been turned away in other states. He argues most election officials are aggressive about handing out regular ballots whenever possible because the provisional ones can be thrown out for something as small as a sloppy signature.
Missouri discarded 3,803 ballots in November — about a quarter of Kansas’ total. Kansas gave out 40,872 provisional ballots, compared to 5,511 for Missouri.
“Secretary Kobach uses every trick that he can to make it as hard as possible for eligible voters to cast a ballot — whether it is unconstitutional legislation, targeting immigrants or forcing more eligible voters to use provisional ballots,” said Kander, president of Let America Vote, a voting rights advocacy group. “He is on a crusade to stop people from voting and now the president of the United States has given him a bigger platform.”
According to Kobach's office, Kansas did reject 931 provisional ballots because voters either lacked documentary proof of citizenship when they registered or failed to show sufficient identification at the polls.
By far the largest chunk of the state's rejected ballots — 10,148 — was due to other polling-site issues such as voters who were not registered in the state or who tried to cast ballots at precincts in the wrong jurisdiction.
In Kansas, if a voter moves to another county without updating the registration address, the entire ballot is discarded. However, when a voter shows up in the wrong polling place but the correct county, the only votes that are counted are the races that overlap both jurisdictions. Kansas had 22,726 ballots that were partially counted in 2016.
The Kansas policy on out-of-county voting is much stricter than rules in many other states. Some states, including California and Ohio, hand out provisional ballots as a way to update their lists of voter addresses and then counts the full verified ballot.
Fifteen states, plus the District of Columbia, also allow people to register and cast a ballot on the same day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Kobach derailed a bill during the last legislative session that would have instituted same-day registration in Kansas.
Some Kansas voters — although the exact number is unclear — even went to the polls incorrectly believing they had legally registered, misled by erroneous confirmations the online registration system generated. Emails Kobach's office provided to The Associated Press under an open records request show problems with the online system dated back months before the general election, although state officials did not recognize it as a systemic glitch until the month before the election.
The office explained it didn't tell the public about the problem because it had received only “occasional reports of a few people.” Instead, county officials were told to only count the ballots of unregistered voters who produced a computer printout of the online confirmation. Anyone without such proof received a provisional ballot, but those were later discarded.
Doug Bonney, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said his group heard from several people who were affected by the website bug.
“They were rightly outraged by it,” Bonney said. “They thought they had done everything they needed to, and had a confirmation that they were in fact registered, and it turned out to be false.”