Ellis County Democrats have hired legal counsel to review whether the Nov. 6 general election was carried out according to Kansas statutes, saying they aren’t confident the votes were tallied correctly.
“The process is very sloppy,” said Henry Schwaller IV, chairman of the Ellis County Democratic Party. “It appears they were not prepared for an election.”
But Ellis County Clerk Donna Maskus, the county’s chief election officer, stands by her office, her employees and the election night volunteers, saying all aspects of the election were handled properly.
“We work hard and we follow the state statutes,” Maskus said. “I think they should be confident in the totals. Anyone, if they have questions, I want them to call me.”
Democrats plan to show up Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Ellis County Administrative Center, 718 Main St., to keep an eye on canvassing — the process required by state law in which remaining votes are counted and tallied and election results finalized and declared official by the Ellis County Commissioners.
The voting process is generating intense scrutiny this time around because of a near tie in the race for the House of Representatives 111th District. The district includes Hays, Victoria, Munjor and rural areas of Ellis County.
At the close of Election Day counting Nov. 6, Republican Barb Wasinger, Hays, who is also an Ellis County Commissioner, was leading incumbent Democrat Rep. Eber Phelps, Hays, by 40 votes. Wasinger has 4,259 votes, or 50.15 percent, to Phelps’ 4,219, or 49.68 percent. That tally does not include provisional, mail-in or some advance ballots.
Democrats are calling on Wasinger, and her fellow commissioner, Dean Haselhorst, to recuse themselves to avoid a conflict of interest. Haselhorst is Wasinger’s election campaign co-chair.
Haselhorst said last week he saw no need to recuse himself, but asked Monday about it he said he will.
“I don’t know if I’ll even be there,” he said. “I don’t want the Democratic Party to have too many kittens.”
Wasinger couldn’t be reached for comment. She recused herself from canvassing the August primary results, and Haselhorst predicted she would again.
Asked if he questions Maskus’ handling of the election, Haselhorst said he had no complaints.
“I have confidence in the vote tallies,” he said. “I have 100 percent confidence in Donna.”
Among the concerns the Democrats have, Schwaller mentioned that Maskus doesn’t have a clear count of how many ballots there are of the various kinds: provisional, advanced, mail-in and paper.
Maskus acknowledged her office is still qualifying the provisional voters to see if those votes should count. There are about 200 of those ballots.
“We go through each one in our Kansas voter system. Kansas law allows it to be counted, so we do review all those,” Maskus said. “We don’t want to deny anybody the right to vote.”
Each provisional voter was given a receipt after voting that directs them to call the County Clerk’s Office or attend the Nov. 15 canvass to find out if they qualified and if their vote is being counted.
“We’ll be glad to tell the voter himself if the ballot was counted or not,” she said. “They can call before 4 p.m. Nov. 15.”
Provisional ballots are paper ones 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 ballot of any provisional voter who is not qualified is not opened.
Democrats are also concerned about mail-in ballots, and whether they were collected up until the time allowed by Kansas law. The law says the ballots must be postmarked election day, Nov. 6. Maskus said a few did arrive that were postmarked Nov. 7, but couldn’t say exactly how many because they were handled by an employee in the office. She said she will report on that Nov. 15.
The county’s mail is collected every morning at 8:30 a.m. by a private contractor hired by the county to get the mail from post office boxes and deliver it to the Administrative Office.
“This is a shock to anyone in Ellis County, because the courthouse is a block from the post office,” said Schwaller, saying that with the county’s budget shortfall he wouldn’t think they’d have money to contract the mail pick up.
He said it also complicates the election even further.
On election night, Maskus said she went to the post office box after the polls closed and she collected 12 ballots. The contractor picked up the mail on Thursday and Friday mornings. Maskus said she checked the box again Friday night and then on Saturday morning around 10 a.m.
“There are still trucks that come in in the afternoon, so I wanted to be extra cautious and make sure if it was in the box that that ballot was counted,” she said. “I went to our box and didn’t find any ballots.”
Another concern is paper ballots, Schwaller said, noting some precincts on Election Day ran out of paper ballots printed on the paper stock suited for counting through the automated tabulating machine. In response, the Clerk’s Office made photocopies and delivered them to the polling sites that ran short.
Those ballots were tabulated election night, along with all the other paper ballots, she said. Maskus doesn’t know the number of photocopied ballots, saying they’ve been intermixed and are now in storage with the other paper ballots. All the ballots are stored according to ward and precinct in what was formerly a bank vault in the basement of the Administrative Center. The locked vault is accessible by a few county employees who know the combination, Maskus said.
Democrats are critical that Maskus doesn’t have exact figures yet for the number of ballots that are provisional, advanced or mail-in. Maskus said none of those ballots will be opened and counted until the evening of the canvass, when the designated election board will open and tabulate them.
“I will report on those at the canvass,” she said. “We account for every ballot. All of that will be shared on Thursday night.”
Democrats also are questioning whether the county’s 69 voting machines were calibrated as required by law in advance of the election. Maskus assured they were.
“Definitely,” she said, noting each machine is tested for accuracy to make sure that when a voter touches the screen for a particular candidate that the machine accurately records the vote. “Definitely. It takes a whole day, starting early in the morning and going all afternoon.”
The election board doing the counting Nov. 15 will be volunteers appointed by Maskus. She declined to name them, saying she’s not sure it’s public information. Party chairs can recommend people, but the deadline for that was Oct. 8. Schwaller said he wasn’t notified of the option to suggest board members. Maskus said she sent letters to both Schwaller and Republican Chair Dustin Roths.
“That was sent to both parties. Both Dustin and Henry. Those went out early on,” she said. “We didn’t get any recommendations.”
Maskus, in responding to the concerns, said Schwaller hasn’t contacted her, but she has been providing information to longtime Democrat John Bird, a former party chair. She said her office provided the lists of provisional and mail-in voters to Bird. Initially she denied the request, she said, to check with Ellis County Legal Counsel Bill Jeter to see if the information is public.
“I have to protect the voters too,” she said, noting she did redact each voter’s driver’s license. Schwaller took exception to Maskus deleting information.
“Any note from a meeting is subject to the Kansas open records act,” Schwaller said. “She doesn’t have the ability to destroy information.”
Schwaller declined to say who the Democrat’s legal counsel is, but did say, “We’re going to the canvass. We’ll have a lot of questions for the clerk.”