Kansas plans protective poll measures; Schwab says mail election would create confusion

Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab answers questions from reporters about his office's coronavirus preparations for elections this year June 9 in the office of Binswanger Glass in Topeka. Enlarge photo

June 11, 2020

— Kansas’ top election official argued Tuesday that going in person to the polls is “a community event” for many voters and that moving solely to mail ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic would create confusion.

Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab is well along in his plans to equip every polling place with two Plexiglasss screens for the Aug. 4 primary election — less than five weeks after Democrats held a presidential primary only by mail that went relatively smoothly. Schwab plans to give voters disposable stylus pens and hand out $1 million in personal protective equipment to election workers, funded with federal coronavirus relief funds.

“A lot of people in our communities really enjoy going to the polling place,” Schwab said. “We don’t want to take that from them, but at the same time, we don’t want them to feel endangered.”

Schwab on Tuesday visited the Topeka branch of Binswanger Glass, which is making and shipping more than 2,000 Plexiglass screens for polling places.

The quarter-inch screens are 24 inches wide and 42 inches high, with two half-inch thick legs held on by 2-inch screws, and the $150 kit can be assembled in a few minutes with a screwdriver.

Jason Tomlinson, the company’s branch manager, said his goal is to have them all done and shipped by the end of this month.

Screens are common in retail stores. Kansas has reported more than 10,600 coronavirus cases and 236 COVID-19-related deaths.

Schwab’s office is encouraging people who are nervous about showing up at a polling place to ask for a mail ballot. Kansas doesn’t require voters to list a reason for seeking a mail ballot, and Schwab’s office said a record 75,000 already have been requested.

But Kansas law prohibits voting solely by mail ballot to fill elective offices, and another law says the secretary of state can change the method of voting in emergencies when normal voting is “impossible.”

The issue of switching to solely mail ballots for the primary or Nov. 3 general election never came up during a special session of the Republican-controlled Legislature last week. In fact, a sweeping coronavirus measure approved by lawmakers barred Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly from changing how or when elections are conducted during the pandemic.

In its presidential primary, the Kansas Democratic Party mailed ballots to more than 400,000 registered Democrats and had no in-person polling sites for the May 2 election. Turnout was about 147,000.

“I would 100% push for entirely mailing those ballots out instead of trying to put a whole lot of money into making provisions for safety,” said State Democratic Party Chairwoman Vicki Hiatt.

But Schwab said some voters who get ballots by mail without asking for them might confuse them for surveys or other mail they throw out.

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