Officially, Ellis County Commissioner Barb Wasinger, Republican, squeaked to a 32-vote win Thursday night over incumbent Democrat Eber Phelps for the House of Representatives 111th District.
But a hand recount of the election results is already slated for Tuesday.
Working before a packed house Thursday night at the Ellis County Administrative Center, the three-member board received the results from Ellis County Clerk Donna Maskus about 7:30 p.m. after two hours of counting some remaining votes from the Nov. 6 general election.
Wasinger, who was in the crowd during the two-and-a-half-hour wait on the counting, afterward did not venture to declare victory.
“We just have to wait,” Wasinger said. “I don’t know, we’ll have to see, the selection’s not over.”
Ellis County Democratic Party Chair Henry Schwaller IV, also observing the counting during the course of the evening, remained optimistic. “We’re looking forward to the recount on Tuesday,” he said afterward.
Maskus, in her 40 years in the County Clerk's Office, said this is the first time she's seen a recount.
The recount is taking place at the request of Phelps, although originally it was the Canvassing Board calling for the recount.
Canvassing is 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. Ballots remaining to be counted were advanced, provisional and mail-in.
Wasinger and her campaign co-chair, County Commissioner Dean Haselhorst, recused themselves earlier this week. Wasinger chose Mike Morley, director of corporate communications and government affairs for Midwest Energy, Hays, as her proxy.
Morley was also Wasinger’s proxy for the August primary canvass. Haselhorst chose Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin.
Phelps, who prior to the election had arranged to be in England to visit an elderly relative, was not present. Attorney John Bird, a name partner with the Hays law firm of Glassman Bird Powell, was observing on his behalf.
At the close of counting on Nov. 6, Wasinger led Phelps by 40 votes, so Thursday’s canvass narrowed her lead to 32.
Observers at the canvass had been chatting and visiting during the course of the evening’s counting. All fell quiet and took their seats as Maskus entered the room and delivered the results to County Commissioner Marcy McClelland, Harbin and Morley. The three canvassers quietly deliberated with each other, then McClelland announced the results.
Wasinger had 4,342 votes, or 50.1 percent of the vote, to Phelps’ 4,310 votes, or 49.73 percent.
“I have discussed this with the Board of Canvassers, if the difference is one-half of one percent, the state will pay for a recount and I believe that’s the way we will go,” McClelland said.
No sooner had McClelland called the recount, than an attorney for the Republicans, Jonathan Ehrlich, Oscaloosa, disputed the board’s right to do so. Bird countered Ehrlich’s argument, but presented to Maskus a letter from Phelps officially requesting a recount. Ehrlich then urged the board to certify the night’s results.
“I think the board can only call for a recount under conditions they find manifest error. And if this board does not find manifest error then they should certify the results and the candidate’s letter that was just handed would then be what triggers the recount,” said Ehrlich, who was representing the Kansas House Republican Campaign Committee, an organization that works to elect Republican lawmakers to office.
Maskus reported at the start of the evening on the ballots the canvassing board would open and that her team of nine people would be counting.
She reported that the office had received 62 advance ballots, which were either mailed or voted in the County Clerk’s Office. Of those, 51 were counted: five were postmarked Nov. 5, 10 were postmarked Nov. 6, and 36 were delivered to poll sites or through the mail.
Of the 11 not counted, one had no postmark and was received after the deadline on Nov. 9, one signature didn’t match and when contacted by phone and mail the voter didn’t respond, one voter returned their ballot without voting, seven were nondeliverable, and one was postmarked too late, Nov. 7.
Of 212 provisional ballots received, 145 were counted. Of those, 12 should not have been provisional, 125 were people whose address changed, one had a name and address change, six had a name change, and one had forgotten their voter ID and brought it in later.
Of the 66 not counted, 42 were registered in another county, 23 were not registered at all, and one was returned in the wrong envelope with a registration card missing.
“If you approve of these, we have gone through the Kansas statutes, and that’s how we see it,” Maskus told the board at the start of the evening.
Before opening the ballots, McClelland announced to the crowd, “If you will notice, the ballot box is empty,” she said. “There is nothing in there.”
In opening the ballots, Morley used a letter opener to slice open each brown manila envelope, which he then handed off to Harbin. Harbin opened the envelope, and McClelland reached in and removed the ballot and slid it into the ballot box. Once the envelopes were all opened, the ballot box was rolled in on a trolley to a separate room for counting.
Bird and Ehrlich asked questions throughout the evening about how the voting and counting process had been carried out. Bird questioned the procedures several times, noting what he characterized as irregularities that didn’t follow Kansas election law.
Voter turnout was close to 60 percent, said Maskus.
Bird questioned procedures for determining when the ballots were postmarked, as well as how the counting machine was handling the evening’s ballots. One voter, Roger Agnew, Hays, showed up to ask specifically if his provisional ballot was counted.
When Bird questioned how photocopied ballots were being counted Thursday evening — because voter turnout at 60 percent meant a couple precincts ran out of the printed ballots — Maskus and Bird discussed the process in detail as the crowd of about 50 people listened.
“I should have hired more people,” Maskus said, “and had them counted on election night. That was a new procedure and it should have been handled differently.”
She noted as well that handling is sometimes complicated by factors such as advance ballots that are returned with coffee and food on them, so they can’t be processed electronically.
At the request of Maskus, Harbin at the start of the evening had put a fresh battery in the clock on the wall. As the hands made their way around the face, observers mingled around the room, standing, sitting, visiting and wandering in and out of the vote-counting and tabulating areas. In contrast, the scene was hushed and talking in a whisper where the votes were being counted.
Sitting with Wasinger during the evening, was her campaign co-chair Hays City Commissioner Sandy Jacobs and County Public Works Director Bill Ring.
Former Kansas Senator Janis Lee kept company with Hays City Commissioner and Vice Mayor Schwaller.
Ellis County Republican Chair Dustin Roths shared conversation with Ehrlich occasionally. But others in the audience were Hays City Commissioner Shaun Musil, Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees, and unsuccessful County Commissioner candidates Chris Rorabaugh and John Walz, a deputy with the Ellis County Sheriff’s Department, who was working his usual security detail for the County Commission.
The Hays City Commissioners cut their regularly scheduled meeting short Thursday, making it a record two-and-a-half minute meeting, said Jacobs.
Some in the audience said they were just curious about the canvassing, which had drawn a lot of publicity in the week ahead of the actual meeting.
Dawn Berry, who for 21 years taught seventh-grade social studies in Logan, quietly watched the counting.
“With it so close between Barb and Eber, I just thought I’d come down and observe the process,” Berry said. “Everything looks pretty straight forward. Looks to me like the process is working the way it should.”
Isaac Vasquez, a 2016 graduate of Fort Hays State University in political science, now works at the Glassman Bird Powell law firm.
“I’m pretty involved in politics,” he said, and worked as a volunteer for the Democratic Party and for Phelps doing poll watching, campaigning, going door to door and making phone calls.
“I wanted to come to ensure everyone is playing by the same rules,” he said.
He was critical of the election process. “I think obviously everyone is trying. But efforts have been a little low,” he said. “Voter turnout in Ellis County is very good and we shouldn’t have these kinds of problems arising. Especially in a county that’s so politically involved.”
Former City Commissioner Lance Jones, Hays, said he came to watch the democratic process in play.
“Both candidates are friends of mine. Unfortunately I could only vote for one. It was a hard decision,” he said.
Watching the counting, Jones acknowledged “there’s a lot of tension in the room and people are paying close attention.”
“It’s interesting, but it’s not too exciting,” he said. “It may be very interesting before the night is over. We’ll see what the final count is.”