Poll worker helps voter during the 2023 Kansas primary election. In 2024, the county will spend more on polling sites but not mail-in ballots.
A poll worker assists a voter in casting his ballot in the Kansas August 2022 primary. The primary saw unusually high turnout due to a constitutional amendment on the ballot. (Photo by Fernando Salazar)

The Sedgwick County Election Office responsible for all voter registration and elections within the county is heading into Wichita 2023 primary elections with a new commissioner, following a fair amount of controversy and turnover in recent years. 

In 2020, Secretary of State Scott Schwab, whose responsibilities overseeing elections include appointing county election commissioners, opted not to reappoint former commissioner Tabitha Lehman following a dispute over her working at home during the pandemic

Lehman, first appointed in 2011, was undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of lymphoma. Schwab was concerned her use of a computer at home placed voter information at risk. Lehman said her IT staff told her the voter data was secure. 

Schwab appointed Angela Caudillo to replace Lehman in 2021. In March 2022, The Beacon reported that about 800 poll workers’ information not voter information was subject to a data breach, a problem stemming from a contractor whose software was used to manage election workers. 

Caudillo resigned at the end of 2022, following an election cycle with unusually heavy turnout and long voter wait times in the August 2022 primary. That was primarily due to intense voter interest in the Value Them Both anti-abortion amendment. The amendment was defeated by a 3-to-2 margin, preserving the constitutional right to an abortion in Kansas.

“Angela led the Election Office through challenging times, often with limited resources and funding from the county commission,” Schwab said in a statement following her resignation. “When resources and needs are not met, and the political environment toward election officials is hostile, we lose talent.”

In early March 2023, the Beacon reported that Caudillo had been directed by the Sedgwick County Commission to not send voters reminders of the option to vote by mail in the 2022 elections, supposedly as a cost-saving move. The reminders had been mailed automatically before every presidential and midterm election since 2008 to reduce wait times at the polls. 

Voting rights advocates say the directive could have contributed to the long waits during the 2022 elections. Others surmised it led to reduced voter participation overall, though there was no evidence of that one way or another. 

Stepping into the election commissioner role this year is Laura Rainwater, a lifelong county resident. She was appointed by Schwab and was sworn in on March 20. Rainwater served most recently as executive director for the Regional Economic Area Partnership of South Central Kansas.  

The Beacon spoke with Rainwater about her top concerns coming into the job and overseeing the Wichita 2023 primary.

Election day is Aug. 1. Voting by mail begins July 12 once advance ballots are mailed. In-person advance voting begins July 17 at the Sedgwick County Courthouse. There are 18 candidates competing in primary races for Wichita mayor, City Council seats and USD 259 school board.

What is your chief concern as the Sedgwick County election commissioner?

My chief concern is to right-size the election office in terms of staffing and budget. The department has been understaffed for many years, which has led to burnout, lots of overtime and high turnover rate. One of our 2024 budget decision packages seeks funding for seven additional positions.

What are the main questions your office receives?

Many voters reach out to us regarding sending advance-by-mail ballot applications for every election. We offer two ways to receive a mail ballot application: 1) Voters can request an application by calling our office, 316-660-7100, or 2) request one on our website. We will then mail them the application for them to complete, sign and return to our office. They will then be sent an advance ballot.

What kind of turnout do you predict for the Wichita 2023 primary?

Sedgwick County only has four primary races and one special election on Aug. 1:  Wichita mayor, Wichita City Council District 4, USD 259 Wichita School Board (one at-large position), USD 268 Cheney (four at-large positions) and Park City local sales tax election. I am not expecting a large turnout like last year’s primary.

What if any changes are you making to advance balloting? Will voters get reminders telling them they can vote by mail?

Sending mail ballot applications to every voter is an expensive endeavor and must be approved by the county commissioners, as it is funded with taxpayer dollars.  Funding for advance-by-mail applications was not approved for 2023.

The previous commissioner wanted more money for more polling places and better pay for poll workers to ensure enough polls are open to reduce wait times. Will either of those things happen by this year’s elections? Next year’s? 

Those two things were not funded for this year, but have been requested for next year’s elections. The county budget process is ongoing, so no decision will be made until later this year.

What else do you want Sedgwick County voters to know? 

We are still actively looking for election workers, both on election day and for early voting sites. Please call us at 316-660-7119 or send us an email at electionworker@sedgwick.gov.

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Polly Basore Wenzl is the editor of The Wichita Beacon. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, she worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C., before coming to Wichita in 1998. She is the author...