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Some question Kansas’ system to appoint election officials

After a Kansas election commissioner was fired for accessing a voter database when working from home while undergoing treatment for cancer, some people are questioning a law that allows the secretary of state to appoint election commissioners in the state’s most-populated counties.

Critics question why voters can’t choose the person who oversees elections in Sedgwick, Shawnee, Johnson, and Wyandotte counties just as they do in 101 other counties in the state. In most counties, the elected county clerk oversees elections.

“The voters put me in office. They put everyone in this building in office,” said Rep. Vic Miller, a Topeka Democrat. “Why are they not competent, capable of putting someone in the office of election commissioner or election official?”

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s spokeswoman Katie Koupal said the current system “maintains the delicate balance of protecting local election officials from potential conflicts of interest while also holding them accountable” to county leaders who set their budgets.

Koupal told the Wichita Eagle that Schwab’s office also allows for local input on the hiring of election officials by including local leaders in making recommendations on who to hire even though it isn’t required.

Schwab’s decision to fire Tabitha Lehman in Sedgwick County for remotely accessing the state’s voter registration database while undergoing cancer treatment during the coronavirus pandemic drew sharp criticism. County officials decided not to fight to change the appointment system because Schwab promised to consult them on her replacement. Schwab has said all election officials in the state were told not to access that database remotely.

Douglas County, which is home to Lawrence, may soon switch to having an appointed official oversee elections because the population there is close to 130,000 residents, which is when state law calls for starting to appoint those officials.

Kansas’ model of appointing officials in larger counties while relying on elected officials in smaller ones is unusual. Judd Choate, who helps lead the University of Minnesota’s certificate program for election administration, said he isn’t familiar with any other state that uses the same setup.

“Well, I mean really, what is an appointment?” Choate said. “An appointment is just a different person making the same decision that an electorate could make.”

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