Different rules for counting ballots are a problem for Kansas voters

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer (left) and Secretary of State Kris Kobach
Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer (left) and Secretary of State Kris Kobach File photos

The grinding work of counting ballots from the Aug. 7 primary continued Tuesday. A week after the election, Kansas didn’t know if Gov. Jeff Colyer or Secretary of State Kris Kobach would be the Republican nominee for governor.

By late Tuesday it seemed Kobach’s lead had grown substantially. An end to the contest will come as a relief to Republicans, who feared a long legal battle over the primary.

For all Kansans who value their vote, the week-long process has been helpful. It exposed the confusing, conflicting, contradictory standards officials use to tally their choices.

This week, for example, Johnson County decided provisional ballots cast without a complete indication of party preference would not be counted. Officials in Sedgwick County decided the opposite.

What? Why would that be? Why would one county include the ballots, while another rejects them? And what of the other 103 counties in Kansas? What standards are they using?

The concern isn’t limited to a small box on a provisional ballot. This week, Johnson County disqualified a ballot from an early voter who died before Election Day. State law requires this when “it shall be made to appear” to election judges that the voter is deceased.

But the standard for notification isn’t clear. Do the judges read about the death online? Does someone mention it in passing? Must a formal process be used? Do all counties use the same approach?

It’s possible that every county in Kansas uses a different standard for deciding which ballots to count, and which to throw away.

Election officials appear to provide little guidance. The secretary of state’s office issued one opinion about provisional ballots and party preferences, which prompted a response from the governor’s office with a different view.

The votes affected by all this confusion may or may not have an impact on the Kobach-Colyer race. But the confusion will affect Kansas voters, who will rightly wonder if their ballots are being counted fairly.

This is no small concern. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court said citizens have a right to see their votes counted the same way.

“Having once granted the right to vote on equal terms,” the court said in Bush v. Gore, “the state may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person’s vote over that of another.”

Yet that seems increasingly possible in the varying standards used among counties in Kansas. The state’s lawmakers must add these issues to next year’s study of election processes.

We understand judgment plays a role in determining whose vote should count. That judgment, though, must be based on consistent law across the state.

And while we’re normally fans of local control, in a statewide race, different standards for counting ballots are inherently unfair.

All close elections serve an important purpose beyond deciding who wins and who loses. They reveal the clumsy way we cast our votes in the United States.

Such problems are not inevitable, and Kansas should work hard next year to identify and solve problems connected with this year’s primary.