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In Johnson County recount, it's still a blowout loss for the Kansas anti-abortion amendment

Three election workers sit at a row of folding tables in a large warehouse, sorting through ballots.
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
Nine of the biggest of the 105 counties in Kansas began recounts of an anti-abortion amendment earlier this week.

Kansas voters soundly rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have stripped away abortion rights. A citizen-requested recount left the results largely unchanged in Johnson County.

Voters in Kansas’ largest county overwhelmingly rejected an amendment to strip abortion rights from the Kansas Constitution, according to an official recount that wrapped up Saturday.

The recount tally still left the measure, which would have opened the door for the Legislature to impose an abortion ban, roundly defeated.

Johnson County Election Commissioner Fred Sherman said the county’s election night results showed 79,818 “yes” votes and 174,933 “no” votes.

The recount found only a small change in the vote tally, leaving the outcome the same. Out of 610 precincts in the county, the recount results found 79,798 votes in favor of the amendment and 174,915 votes against.

While he expected the results to uphold the “no” vote, Sherman said the recount process was “emotional and physically stressful.”

Nine of the biggest of the 105 counties in Kansas began recounts earlier this week. That came after Melissa Leavitt, of Colby in far northwestern Kansas, demanded the double-check of the vote. She has pressed for tighter election laws.

Jeff Meyers, 2nd district commissioner on the Board of County Commissioners, which was responsible for certifying the recount, said he didn’t think there was any evidence that the “yes” votes would gain the necessary results to win the recount.

“I was expecting the results to be pretty much what they turned out to be,” Meyers said. “I think the process is transparent and I think it also shows that elections in Johnson County are well run and are working the way they're supposed to work.”

Officials in Sedgwick County, the second-largest in Kansas, were still certifying results Saturday, although a county official told the Wichita Eagle they would miss the deadline.

The cost of a recount

While Johnson County finished the recount under the five-day deadline, Sherman said the magnitude of the work – and the “human element” of the recount that leaves more room for error – has him reviewing county procedures. Sorting groups and the timeframe for each part of the process may be changed.

“It's like a 100-year flood, we need to prepare for this – it's part of the election process,” Sherman said. “If and when it's requested that we do it again, we may take a similar path, we may make some different decisions, but we will implement the process as it's been adopted in Kansas law.”

Kansas only conducts recounts when the margin is tight or when a private individual pays for the work to go over votes by hand. Mark Gietzen, a long-time anti-abortion activist from Wichita, is covering most of the costs.

A county could get stuck with that bill — if the recount reversed the outcome of the vote. But some of the counties caught up in the recount underestimated the cost, putting taxpayers on the hook for overruns.

Johnson County estimated its recount would cost $74,500. County Commissioner Ed Eilert said they don’t yet know if they went over cost.

“That [number] was based upon a recount for the treasurer's race,” Eilert said of the estimate, which was based on a smaller recount within the Republican primary. “When the work was completed on the constitutional amendment, I understand there was not time for the Secretary of State's office to re-ask clerks.”

The counties had five days to complete the work. The Kansas secretary of state's office concluded Gietzen and Leavitt could cover the roughly $120,000 cost and set that deadline for Saturday. The pair provided their credit cards. They raised tens of thousands online even as Gietzen said he was tapping into his anti-abortion networks for more.

Both Gietzen and Leavitt have suggested there could have been irregularities in the election. Yet they’ve offered no specifics or evidence.

The recounts took place in Johnson, Douglas, Sedgwick, Shawnee, Crawford, Harvey, Jefferson, Lyon and Thomas counties. The amendment lost in all of those places except for Thomas County. Combined, the counties represent almost 60% of the ballots cast.

The vote, particularly the nearly 60-40 margin, caught political analysts by surprise. Anti-abortion conservatives in the Legislature put the measure on the Aug. 2 ballot 18 months earlier. They counted on the traditionally strong turnout of Republican voters for primaries — and a correspondingly historically low primary turnout for Democrats — to all but lock down the passage of the amendment.

But just six weeks before the vote, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe V. Wade case that had enshrined abortion rights across the country for half a century. That instantly gave states the power to ban abortions — dramatically raising the stakes for the August vote in Kansas.

The amendment wouldn’t have changed abortion rules on its own. But it would have essentially wiped out a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in 2019 that said the state constitution guarantees abortion rights. Had the amendment passed, the Legislature could have then passed a ban.

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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