Complaints about the handling of mailed-in ballots continued to echo in Johnson County, with some out-of-state college students and their parents saying a massive breakdown in communication with elections officials resulted in students never receiving the ballots they asked for.
In one instance, a student flew home four days before the election to advance vote provisionally in person rather than risk not getting to vote at all. She said the ballot she’d requested twice never made it to her Washington, D.C. university address.
Although software problems caught the most attention right after the election, the advance mail ballots have since emerged as at least as much of an issue in Johnson County. Election Commissioner Ron Metsker said that the surge in requests for mailed ballots combined with slow delivery by the U.S. Postal Service contributed to the frustration, which was especially keen among students wanting to cast their first vote.
Metsker put much of the blame on the postal service, combined with unrealistic state deadlines for when ballots can be mailed out.
“If I had my way we would eliminate voting by mail because it’s so undependable,” he said. However he did not have a ready replacement idea for people who reside elsewhere.
“People who are upset about this, I don’t blame them,” Metsker said. “I am more upset than most people.”
Students and parents who contacted The Star after the election noted a variety of problems and miscommunication with county officials. Those problems range from conflicting forms, failure of county officials to find their records and non-delivery by the post office.
Emily Milakovic, a journalism major at George Washington University who was 19 on Election Day, sent her request for a ballot. But she became nervous when she didn’t see one in her mailbox by October 28, more than a week after the first day the county could mail them out.
She called the election commission but could not get through, so she left a voice mail, she said. When she didn’t get a call back five days later, she mentioned it to her mother, Amy, who also left a voice message threatening a complaint to the Federal Elections Commission.
When someone from the election office did return the call on Nov. 3, Emily said the address on file had different numbers from the one on her application. The worker said a new ballot would be mailed, but by then the chances were slim it would make it to Washington D.C. and back to Johnson County before the election-night deadline.
So Emily flew home. That was only an option because her father works for an airline and could get her a free ticket, she said. She took off Friday afternoon after course work was over, voted at an advance polling place and flew out again at 5:40 a.m. Saturday to make her Saturday class meetings.
Emily, who wants to run for office one day herself, said this election was her first. But it shouldn’t have cost hours of phone calls and travel time, she said.
“I don’t understand why when it’s 2016 we have to hand-write and send in our applications. It should be easier and electronic,” she said.
Sophie Fisher’s voting journey took many complicated twists. Like Emily, she ended up with a provisional ballot that she was told was eventually counted.
It started with an application she filled out in March. The digital application in PDF form had a signature line that was fillable by computer. So, Sophie, 19 and soon to declare herself a neuroscience major at Brown University in Rhode Island, did what she assumed was right and filled it. Only later did she find out that her machine-filled signature wasn’t acceptable, she said.
By that time, she’d checked and been told there was no record of her application, so she filled out another one — this time from the Kansas Secretary of State’s office. It required her to print out the application and sign in ink.
Unfortunately she accidentally put the wrong mailbox number on that one, so a third one was sent for a provisional vote. All this took place during overlapping emails between Sophie, her mother Mari-Lynn Poskin and the election office that began Oct. 7 and ended Nov. 2, said Poskin.
“I felt really frustrated because every time I asked a question I got different answers,” Sophie said. “It seems like a simple thing to fill out a request for a ballot but it made me feel like I was losing my mind.”
There were other reported problems. One person who contacted the Star said her son was told he filled out the wrong form as a student studying abroad. And Metsker said he knows of one mother who spent $50 to send a ballot FedEx to her daughter to meet the deadline. Her first ballot request had the right address, but took 38 days to be delivered, he said. At least two other parents used the FedEx option for the same reason, he said.
Those parents blamed the postal service, he said. But Amy Milakovic of Overland Park and Mari-Lynn Poskin of Leawood were also unhappy with the county. Milakovic noted that problems with mailed ballots have a big impact on a student demographic whose voting tendencies lean Democratic.
Poskin, a registered Republican of Leawood, said she has no doubt that the big turnout swamped the election office. But, “it’s a modern age and it shouldn’t be so difficult,” she said. “To me, this is not something that the county is allowed to be this incompetent at.”
Metsker said the surge of last-minute voter registrations followed by another wave of advance mail ballot requests came close to overwhelming his election staff. The county sent out 46,075 advance ballots this year on request, plus another 6,966 to voters who are on an automatic permanent list as disabled.
Of those, 371 arrived back at the election office too late and 594 came back to the county marked return to sender. Metsker did not have a way to know exactly how many ballots did not reach their addressees.
Given the slower delivery times of the postal service, state deadlines that didn’t allow ballots to go out before Oct. 19 this year and allowed the county to keep sending them as late as Nov. 4 were part of the problem, he said.
The huge interest and turnout was another factor.
Perhaps a bigger issue is that expectations have changed with the digital age, he said. When people – particularly young people – are used to getting immediate on-line confirmations and tracking, a paper ballot delivered by mail truck may seem like an impossible throw-back to horse-and-buggy days.
For now, mailed-in ballots are the only option for out-of-town students unless they register and vote at school. But that would mean missing out on having a voice in Johnson County and Kansas elections.