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Is Sedgwick County doing enough to ensure voting in elections is accessible to all? Nancy Brown, a leader of the Wichita League of Women Voters, doesn’t think so.
She and other voting rights advocates believe people who have difficulty going to the polls were harmed by the Sedgwick County Commission last year. In the 2022 election season, the Sedgwick County Election Office did not send out mailers that allow voters to request advance ballots – something it has done every presidential and midterm election since 2008.
The Sedgwick County Commission asked then-Elections Commissioner Angela Caudillo to not send them out, citing costs as a reason. On average, the cost of producing the mailers and postage was between $90,000 and $100,000 according to the elections office.
Those mailers had been sent to every registered voter in Sedgwick County for every presidential and midterm election since 2008. Voters received no notice that they would not be sent in 2022 – which Brown and others say likely led to reduced participation by voters who rely on mail-in advance ballots because of mobility issues.
Sedgwick County first began sending out the notices to request advance mail-in ballots in 2008 to address long lines at the polls, Caudillo said in a June 28, 2022, county commission meeting.
The mailers appeared to work. In the years after the mailers started to be sent out automatically, 30 to 40 percent of votes were cast by mail-in ballots.
Caudillo at that meeting cautioned commissioners against making the change without knowing the impact. “My question is trying to figure out, if we were not to send out a mailer, how might that affect voters’ behavior?” Caudillo said.
The county halted the mailings without first answering that question.
What happens when voting by mail becomes more difficult?
Brown believes that the absence of the mailer contributed to the long lines in last year’s elections. The Aug. 2 primary saw some voters wait up to three hours while the Nov. 8 election saw some two-hour waits.
“When you don’t remind people to request the mail-in ballot, they forget and the deadline passes. Then they have to stand in line on election day” or perhaps they don’t vote at all, Brown said.
Russell Fox, a political science professor at Friends University, said he believes that the Sedgwick County Commission’s refusal to fund the mailers directly impacted voter behavior in the general election last November.
“You can say, ‘Well, why aren’t these people just requesting it themselves?’” Fox said. Mailers can be requested from the Kansas secretary of state’s office and from the Sedgwick County Election Office.
“Sure, they can go to the secretary of state’s website and learn the rules or request something from Sedgwick County. But the fact of the matter is, to people with low income, elderly voters, people with low mobility, or any reason someone might not be super attentive to elections, these mailers were a huge asset.”
How many fewer people voted by mail in Sedgwick County elections last year?
In 2020, 39 percent of votes were cast by mail using advance mail-in ballots in Sedgwick County. By 2022, that rate had fallen to 18 percent.
The lack of mailers might not be the only reason mail-in ballots decreased in 2022. Fox said it’s possible that voter confidence in mail-in ballots has been undermined by a national push to discredit the integrity of voting by mail – but that is hard to measure
Brown and Fox attribute a large portion of the decline in mail-in votes to the lack of mailers. Every year when Sedgwick County sent out the mailer, the rate of voters using mail-in ballots increased.
A statewide trend of decreasing voter access
Some see the local reduction in access to mail-in ballots part of a larger statewide effort to restrict access to voting. In the Kansas Legislature, there has been increasing support for limiting the ways that voters can cast their ballots. Bills debated on the Senate floor Wednesday included measures to tighten deadlines for advance ballots and ban the use of ballot drop boxes.
Shawnee Republican Sen. Mike Thompson, who presented the four elections bills that were debated, stated that “voting is a privilege” rather than a right and that people should have to work within the framework of the law to participate in elections.
While there is current support for these bills in the Kansas Legislature, it does not appear they have enough votes to override a veto by Gov. Laura Kelly.
Sedgwick County Commission in election limbo
Whether Sedgwick County will return to funding the mailers depends in part on who replaces Caudillo, who left her position last year. County election commissioners are appointed by the Kansas secretary of state, which has not filled the position yet.
“It’s hard for us to build a comprehensive plan without things ironed out and have an idea of the impact of what we are doing,” said District 4 Commissioner Ryan Baty. “From a county commission standpoint, we really don’t know what deck of cards we are playing with yet.”
Pete Meitzner, chairman of the Sedgwick County Commission, said despite the uncertainty around who will lead the election office, the commission is considering a few ways to improve how elections are run. These include an increase in funding and possibly locating the office in its own building. Currently it is in the historic Sedgwick County courthouse.
“As I have said before, I am very supportive of adding additional funds… I am aware there is a funding shortfall and I will be supportive of additional funds,” Meitzner said.
Meitzner said that not sending the mailers was not an effort to undermine the election but an effort to spend money more efficiently. “That idea is completely false. The elections office is struggling right now and we needed to save costs.”
He said the county was under no obligation by the state to send those out, and there are other avenues to request an advance ballot.
Baty spoke of another issue.
He said that trust has been broken in elections and it will be up to the commissioners and the election office moving forward to continue to reassure everyone that elections in Sedgwick County are secure.
“While I do not think there was election fraud… We want ease of voting and we want people to trust their vote,” Baty said.
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