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Over half a million Kansans requested mail ballots, with many returning them early

Andrew Bahl
abahl@gannett.com
A sign encourages voters to use Shawnee County's ballot drop box at the Rossville Community Swimming Pool. Over 500,000 mail ballots were sent to voters statewide.

Over 500,000 Kansas voters requested an advance mail ballot in 2020, according to figures from the Secretary of State’s Office, with more than half of those ballots already returned to election officials.

For comparison, 376,000 mail ballots were sent in the 2018 and 2016 elections combined. And a lower percentage of voters had returned their ballot at this point in 2016, even accounting for the increase in advance voting.

Of the 504,682 who requested mail ballots in 2020, roughly 63 percent, or 318,050, have been returned as of Thursday morning, the Secretary of State’s office reported.

While more Democrats requested a mail ballot, over twice as many as Republicans as Democrats have used the in-person advance voting option. Overall, 195,416 voters have cast their ballot early in-person.

Between mail and in-person early voting, roughly a quarter of all voters in the state have already voted. And residents in both urban and rural areas have embraced the practicet.

In Johnson County, elections director Connie Schmidt said 163,000 residents had requested a ballot, roughly one-third of all registered voters in the county. Of those, 116,000 — or roughly 72% — had already been returned.

In Harvey County, 21% of all registered voters had already voted by mail, officials reported.

“All the media coverage started way earlier so it started getting it in people’s minds,” said County Clerk Rick Piepho.

Atchison County Clerk Michelle Phillips said staff went to even greater lengths to encourage voters to return ballots early — a direct appeal.

“We kind of cheated on that,” Phillips said, laughing. “I had a slip in every ballot that said ’please don’t hesitate.’ ”

Some counties have been inundated, with officials in Sedgwick County moving through a backlog of 35,000 ballots yet to be processed.

Deputy election commissioner Melissa Schnieders said many voters have been anxiously checking their ballot’s status on ksvotes.org and are more in tune to potential delays.

The rush of people returning their ballots quickly was abnormal, she said, but a brief logjam in processing isn’t.

“People’s expectations are so high and they’re not realistic,” Schnieders said. “ ... This is normal, it is nothing unusual. It is just people can see it now.”

The county, which was in the midst of opening 16 early voting sites Tuesday, was prioritizing in-person advance voting, as well as mailing out the last of the ballots to voters. It expects to have the backlog cleared by the weekend.

Larger counties are also still processing voter registration applications, with staff having to manually enter the information.

Schnieders noted that Sedgwick County has a staff of 11 full-time officials, a smaller number than in other larger counties, such as Johnson County.

“That’s adequate in a non-presidential election year,” she said, but noted that county workers from other agencies had been brought in to help with the increased workload.

Many voters have followed the advice of election officials by placing their ballot in a secure drop box rather than mailing it in.

Two-thirds of Harvey County’s ballots have come in via the two drop boxes, Piepho said.

But some counties have opted to forgo that option. Pawnee County elected to lock up its drop box, according to a social media post from County Attorney Doug McNett.

A sign posted on the box instructs voters to drop their ballot off in the elections office, and a subsequent post from McNett said the box was taken down.

The decision was made by County Clerk Ruth Searight, a worker at the clerk’s office said. Attempts to contact Searight via phone and email were unsuccessful.

The U.S. Postal Service has said that it can't guarantee any ballots mailed at this point will reach county election officials in time to be counted. Ballots in Kansas must be postmarked by Election Day and arrive by Nov. 6.

That means voters should expect to use a drop box or simply return their ballot to their polling place or county elections office, experts say.

“Your ballot is not insured,” Secretary of State Scott Schwab told reporters last week. “It is your responsibility.”

Counties may open and handle advanced ballots before Election Day, with Phillips saying that they will also match the signature on the ballots to those provided on a voter’s registration form to determine the ballot’s authenticity.

Those ballots can be scanned ahead of time and the data stored, but the votes themselves won’t be tabulated until election night, in accordance with state law.

Schnieders said she expected no change in how quickly results would be reported, despite the influx of advance ballots.

“We’re not anticipating anything to be different,” she said.

Election officials sent over 500,000 mail ballots to Kansas voters for the 2020 general election, with many voters electing to return them via a ballot drop box, such as this one in Harvey County.