With too many votes still outstanding, the only thing conclusive Rep. Eber Phelps would say Tuesday night was he hopes his Republican opponent, Ellis County Commissioner Barb Wasinger will excuse herself from canvassing the results of the Nov. 6 general election.
“The prudent thing would be for her to recuse herself,” said Phelps, the Democrat whose open seat in the Kansas House of Representatives has been a hard fought battle between him and Wasinger.
Democratic supporters and Phelps spent the evening Tuesday at the Ellis County field office of the Kansas Democratic Party, 1502 Vine St., awaiting election results.
The evening started with Phelps holding a slight lead for his 111th District seat, but that disappeared as the evening wore on. By 10:30 p.m., Wasinger was showing a 51-vote lead, but with still more votes to count. By midnight, when the vote count for the night was ended, the margin had narrowed, with Wasinger up by only 40 votes.
But some ballots remain to be hand counted, and might not even be yet received by the Ellis County Clerk's Office.
While Democratic supporters at the field office were elated during the evening about Democrat Laura Kelly’s unexpected win over Republican Kris Kobach for the governor’s post, there was underlying concern about the outcome for Phelps. He’s logged 18 years in the Legislature and was hopeful about going back to resume working with both fellow party members and Republicans to fix the state’s budget after the Brownback tax experiment.
Phelps indicated by night’s end that he was not giving up.
“I finished my door-to-door campaigning last night about 8:30 p.m.,” he said. “There was every indication things would go my way, and I still am optimistic. I’m not making a concession.”
As he told one well-wisher at the watch party, “All I have to do is win by one vote,” he said. “It’s still a possibility.”
Ellis County Clerk Donna Maskus said at midnight the race was too close to call.
“There’s too many votes outstanding,” Maskus said.
Still remaining to be counted are 196 provisional ballots that were cast in precincts voting on the 111th, 39 advance ballots, and an unknown number of mail-in ballots that can arrive by the end of the day Friday and be counted as long as they are postmarked Election Day.
Provisional ballots are those that must be hand counted because a voter may not have had their identification, or they changed address after registering, or a variety of other reasons. The advance ballots are some that were picked up by a voter during early voting and then dropped off at the polls on Tuesday.
The provisional ballots will go before the election board, eight people appointed by Maskus, at 5 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 15, said County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst. In a process open to the public, the election board counters open the ballots, determine through a lengthy process whether the voters are qualified, then count the votes, Haselhorst said. The results are tabulated, printed out and presented then to the Ellis County County Commission in what is called canvassing the votes, to declare the results official.
"It'll probably take two hours," Haselhorst said. "We sit there and do nothing while the canvassers go in to a separate room ... So we won't know the results of Eber and Barb's race, I'm gonna say, til 7 o'clock on the 15th."
Asked if she would recuse herself, Wasinger said "we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Haselhorst, who is Wasinger's campaign co-chair, said Wednesday he has no plans to recuse himself, adding he couldn't guess what Wasinger will decide.
"She could if she wants, and she may. She recused herself at the primary and she may again. But at the end of the day, Barb won't count a vote and neither will I," Haselhorst said. "We don't handle a ballot one."
Wasinger and a few close to her campaign watched the election unfold from her home in Hays, said Sandy Jacobs, co-chair of the campaign, on Wednesday morning. They are optimistic.
"We're pretty confident Barb will end up the winner and that she'll do an outstanding job for the state," Jacobs said.
"I thought both candidates ran a good race. We had two good candidates. I guess we'll see on the 15th who is the winner," he said. "I think in the end, Barb is going to win."
Wasinger said Wednesday morning she's walked more than 150 miles going door-to-door to meet voters in the course of her campaign.
"I've been asked what was the best part of this election, and I have to say it was the people that I met in Ellis County," Wasinger said. "I got a chance to meet alot of people and they gave me their thoughts and views, whether they were for me or not, and it was a wonderful experience."
As to the outcome?
"I'm just going to wait and see what happens with all the votes counted," she said.
Maskus said her office will start Wednesday on counting all the outstanding ballots received so far.
“We’re also taking down the poll sites tomorrow, and also working on tax roll information,” she said.
Minus all the ballots remaining to be counted, Wasinger’s vote total was 4,259 votes to Phelps 4,219 votes.
“The turnout was almost 58 percent,” Maskus said, “which is outstanding.” Wasinger had 50.15 percent of that, while Phelps had 49.68 percent. There were 15 write-in votes.
Jacobs and Wasinger both commented on the strong turnout.
"I'm very grateful for all the people that voted," Wasinger said. "It shows our system works."
As for Phelps, by 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, he said if the race ends in a tie he’ll get advice from advisors about seeking a recount. Meanwhile, he was hoping for the best.
“Hopefully it will come out in my favor and I’ll go back to the Legislature,” Phelps said. “If not, life goes on.”
Maskus said a candidate can request a recount, but only pays the cost if the outcome doesn’t vary. A variance of one vote means the candidate doesn’t pay, she said.
She and her employees counted ballots all evening up, finally wrapping up about midnight in the County Commission meeting room of the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main St. For the first time, people were free to come and go and watch the counting process.
Maskus said the county did have two of its voting machines malfunction early in the day before they were used for voting. One machine was at St. Nicholas Catholic Church and one in Ellis. “I made the decision not to use them,” she said.
In other results, in the three-way race for District 1 Ellis County Commissioner, Republican Butch Schlyer was the winner. Schyler had 1,443 votes, beating out Democrat Chris Rorabaugh, who had 1,114, and Independent John Walz, 760.
In the 110th District, Republican incumbent Ken Rahjes took 76 percent of the vote to 24 percent for his opponent, Democrat Kim Thomas. At 11:30 p.m. there were 67 of 70 precincts reported and the vote was 6,160 to 1,934. The district covers portions of Ellis and Graham counties, and Phillips, Smith and Rooks. Thomas didn’t win in Rooks County, where she is mayor of Stockton, and a Plainville native. While the county had 61 percent turnout, 1,352 of the votes went for Rahjes, while Thomas got 741.