Editorials

Here’s how to ensure the Kris Kobach recount debacle doesn’t happen again in Kansas

Kansas Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach and his wife Heather
Kansas Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach and his wife Heather AP

Kansas lawmakers who care about fair and free elections will have work to do next year.

The razor-thin primary contest between Gov. Jeff Colyer and Secretary of State Kris Kobach has exposed flaws in election rules — issues that, if left unaddressed, will further erode Kansans’ confidence in the electoral system.

The most important reform is ending the absurd practice of allowing the secretary of state to appoint election commissioners in four Kansas counties: Johnson, Wyandotte, Sedgwick and Shawnee.

There is no legitimate reason the secretary of state should have this power. Every other Kansas county picks its own election supervisor — the county clerk. For no good reason, in the state’s most populated counties, the power rests in Topeka.

That has led to serious budget misunderstandings between election officers and taxpayers who foot the bill. It also has led to a whiff of political patronage: Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker, who has overseen two election night failures, was a former chairman of the Republican Party in the county.

Kobach, of course, is a Republican. It’s not unreasonable to question whether politics were involved in that pick.

It gets worse. Metsker’s term ends at the end of August, state records show. That means Kobach can determine if Metsker stays or goes smack in the middle of a possible recount involving Johnson County.

Or Kobach could extend Metsker’s job for days or weeks, perhaps past the election. Either way, in the current climate, it’s hard to imagine a greater conflict of interest.

Some have suggested that the county commission should appoint an election commissioner, but county commissions are political bodies, too. They are not exempt from partisan influences — or wacky decisions. The best answer may be to give the power to the county manager or executive, perhaps subject to commission approval.

Kansas City has a four-member oversight board appointed by the governor, two from each party. They pick the two election directors, a Democrat and a Republican. That may be a model for Kansas.

Other repairs will be simple. While Kobach did the right thing by promising to recuse himself from general supervision of the ballot count, the issue should have never come up. Kansas law should require candidates involved in potential recounts to step away from any involvement in the process.

Secretaries of state often supervise elections in which they’re candidates, which is worrisome. At the same time, someone at the state level must perform that role. The secretary of state is usually qualified to do so.

Recounts are another matter. Even the appearance of interference — which surfaced this week — must be avoided. If a contest involving the secretary of state heads to a recount, recusal should be mandatory.

Kansas lawmakers also should review the state’s rules for recounts. In primaries, a candidate requesting a recount must post a bond the cover the potential costs. In the general election, if the margin is less than one-half of one percent, the state pays.

Why the discrepancy? If any election is close enough for a recount, the state should pay. A fair election should not depend on a candidate’s bank account.

Other reform ideas are welcome. This much is clear: Kansans’ faith in elected government has been tested by the Kobach-Colyer primary debacle. It can be restored by getting the secretary of state’s office out of the business of controlling local elections or overseeing their own recounts.

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