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Johnson County Promises Election Results Won't Be Late This Time

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3 file photo
Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker greets early voters at the election headquarters in Olathe, Kansas.

On a recent Thursday morning, there was non-stop foot traffic at the Johnson County Election Office in Olathe. The usually barren parking lot was full, and the poll worker at the door barely had seconds to spare between greetings as he ushered people inside.

Many early voters wanted to avoid long lines on Election Day. Many more were hoping to alleviate the county's now notorious delays, blamed on voting machines, in reporting results on election night. Some critics worry the machines might just be one of the problems this time.

Advance voting ended Saturday for all but one polling location — the Olathe location will be open 8 a.m. to noon Monday. By 1:30 p.m. Saturday, the county had reached 100,000 in-person advance votes. And that doesn't include the roughly 50,000 issued by mail — both trailing the 2016 presidential election by only a few thousand.

"More voters are turning out earlier," said Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker. "They're very, very engaged."

In the 2016 election, Johnson County was the last county in Kansas to report election results, due to a "huge influx" of advance ballots, voter registrations and high voter turnout. Also to blame were the old voting machines.

Then in August, even with brand new machines, Johnson County was again the last county to report results. Several statewide primaries couldn't be called until the next morning.

"We've seen a huge delay in results reported. We've seen issues with the machines. We've seen issues with poll worker training. It's just been a real mess in Johnson County," said voters' rights advocate Davis Hammett. "And there seems to not be a great effort to standardize it to make elections run effectively."

Hammett, director of Loud Light, a Kansas-based civic engagement organization, has a lawsuit pending against Metsker for access to the 1,050 voters whose ballots weren't counted in the August primary. 

The voting equipment vendor, Election Systems & Software, did take the blame for a technical glitch in the software, which has since been fixed and tested. 

"When I say it's going to be dazzlingly fast, that's because I watched it perform and I went, 'That is amazing,'" Metsker said.

ES&S created a general election scenario just to be sure the software could handle it. It’s a good thing, too, because 419,000 people have registered to vote — an all-time high for Johnson County.

Since the primary, Metsker said they've doubled their capacity, adding 1000 new machines and 1000 new poll workers. But with all those new workers, some people are concerned there may be more issues.

Barbara Meyer went to cast her early ballot last Tuesday at the Olathe election office.

"I gave the man my license. He said, 'Can you provide your address?' I said, 'I don’t have to, you can’t ask me that question,' and he gave me this strange look," Meyer said.

Actually, poll workers are instructed to ask a person’s address, to verify where they’re registered. But Meyer was concerned the poll worker thought the address on her photo ID needed to match the address where she’s registered.

If that was the case, Hammet said, the poll worker was mistaken. He said he sees this as a bad sign for Election Day.

"That's a poll worker in the election office. These would ideally be the most trained poll workers," Hammett said. "Then you magnify that on election day. These folks got a couple hours of training, there are thousands of them across the county, just working one day. There's a lot of room for human error."

Hammett and others have also raised concerns about Metsker’s political ties. He served as chair of the Johnson County GOP for seven years before Secretary of State Kris Kobach appointed him election commissioner.

Kobach has gained national recognition for the efforts he has taken to prevent voter fraud. Over the summer, a federal judge ruled Kobach unconstitutionally blocked tens of thousands of people from registering to vote

Now, Kobach is running for Kansas governor. A Kansas City Star open records request showed that Metsker and Kobach communicated on primary election night in August, which raised concerns about Kobach's influence on that close race with Gov. Jeff Colyer for the Republican candidacy. He eventually did recuse himself but has only said he'd do so in the midterm if it's close again. 

Metsker dismissed concerns about his ties to Kobach.

"I don't know really how to answer that, because I've lived 68 years in this community," Metsker said. "I worked very hard to serve and to be a man of integrity in this function. And, I am a human. I am not flawless."

The ACLU of Kansas sent a letter (left) to Ronnie Metsker, alerting him they planned to put up signs with voter help hotlines near Johnson County polling places. Metsker wrote back (right) prohibiting them from placing their signs, which he called 'electioneering.'

Micah Kubic from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas said he’s more concerned about what will happen if voters have problems at the polls. Just a few days ago, the ACLU got a letter from Metsker, banning them from putting up signs with voter help hotlines near polling places.

"It is clear from these sorts of actions that Mr. Metsker is an enthusiastic proponent of some of the worst restrictions on the right to vote that we have seen anywhere in this country. And that is troubling regardless of his relationship with anyone else," Kubic said.

But Metsker said he’s just doing his job.

"People can be confident that this system is certain and sure, and that's what the voter needs to focus on," he said.

Metsker said he hopes the process will be fast election night, but he said what's more important to him is accuracy. 

Assuming the machines perform as well as Metsker said they will, there are still other factors at play. The same conditions cited for 2016's delay are present again — high early voter turnout and an all-time high in voter registrations.

With nearly a quarter of the state’s voters residing in Johnson County, there’s a lot on the line. Metsker can be sure, all eyes will be on Johnson County on election night.

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter at KCUR 89.3. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @andreatudhope

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 
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