Kansas House candidates on the issues: Should the Sec. of State continue to be able to appoint the Johnson County Election Commissioner?

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Under current law, the Kansas Secretary of State has the power to appoint the Johnson County Election Commissioner. That meant Kris Kobach got to choose the Election Commissioners overseeing the gubernatorial election in which he is a candidate.

We’re continuing today with the statehouse candidates’ responses to our questionnaire:

Here’s question number two:

Should the Kansas Secretary of State continue to have the right to appoint the Johnson County Election Commissioner? Would you support legislation returning full authority over the Johnson County Election Office to local control? What other changes would you propose for the Kansas election system?

District 14

Angela Justus Schweller (Democrat)

Johnson County is one of four counties in Kansas where the election commissioner is
appointed. We should be consistent across the state and have our election commissioners be non-partisan elected positions, where they can be held accountable by their constituents.

To increase election integrity and voter participation, there are several bills that have been introduced by Representative Brett Parker that should be considered. These
include: creating an independent commission draw district maps, allowing permanent advanced voting by mail, no longer requiring birth certificates to register, and allowing voter registration on election day.

Charlotte Esau (Republican)

Did not respond.

District 16

Cindy Holscher (Democrat)

During the 2018 session, an amendment was brought to the House floor to allow Johnson County to elect it’s County Election Commissioner. I supported that measure and continue to do so. As I go door-to-door talking to voters, this is something they ask about regularly. It seems particularly odd to them that we have this arrangement in the most populous counties in the state. To them, it seems fishy at best. We should ensure our elections are run as fairly and ethically as possible; having the Commissioner appointed in Johnson County by the Secretary of State makes the process questionable in the eyes of our voters.

Sue Huff (Republican)

Current law states the Secretary of State shall appoint the Johnson County Election Commissioner. Changing this would require legislation. Changing the law should not be decided on the popularity of an incumbent Secretary of State. Rather, should seek to ensure appointments are in the best interest of Kansans. I would like to see a bi-partisan group choose.

District 17

Tom Cox (incumbent Republican)

I think for Johnson County and the other 3 counties that the Sec. of State appoints the
Election Commissioner for, we should change it to allow the local county commissions
to decide the commissioner. The same way they appoint the county treasurer, county
manager, etc.

I think this last election brought many new issues to light in regards to our election
system. I support requiring the Sec. of State to have to recuse themselves from any
race they are on the ballot for. I believe that when you apply for an advance ballot it
should be for every election that year or possibly for 2 years before you have to apply
again. We also need to provide clear standards for counting provisional ballots and
mail-in ballots so each county is doing it the same way.

Michael Kerner (Libertarian)

The Secretary of State (SOS) selects the election commissioner for a few large counties. For smaller counties, the county clerk handles this task as a side job. Moving the selection from the SOS to the County Commission will probably change nothing. I would suggest making Election Commissioner an elected post with a term and term limit of 4 years.
I also question the method of filling vacancies in legislative seats when a death or resignation occurs. It is left to the precinct chairs of the party in the district of the outgoing member to fill the seat. That means that when you think you voted for a person, you voted for his party, since they get to fill the seat. The process for state legislative seats should be the same as for congressional seat vacancies. You hold a special election.

Laura Smith Everett (Democrat)

I believe the more direct contact citizens have with their officials the better. Further, County Election Commissioners should not be beholden to any one person. I would fully support Commissioners being an elected position or controlled by the County Commissions as they are for most other Kansas counties.

For other election systems: I’m in full support of ending Cross Check and ensuring that our current Secretary of State’s discriminatory voting law ends in coordination with the court’s orders. I am also in favor of permanent vote by mail, same day voter registration and expansion of early voting to ensure any Kansan that wants to vote can vote.

District 18

Eric Jenkins (Republican)

Frankly, I don’t see this as a pressing issue. I have knocked on thousands of doors, and not once has this been raised as a concern. However, here is my comment – last year, the Kansas Legislature enacted reforms to provide the County Commission more control over the budget, while retaining the ability of the Secretary of State to appoint the Election Commissioner. That seems to be an appropriate balance of power and further change is not needed.

I do strongly favor local elections being in the fall of odd years, but I would allow elected local officials to take office immediately upon the election being certified. Under the current system, there is a “lame duck” period that lasts two months and sets up the possibility of an outgoing council to enact items that would be hard for the newly elected council to reverse.

Cindy Neighbor (incumbent Democrat)

There are very few counties in Kansas that have their Election Commissioner appointed by the Secretary of State. I believe it should be in the hands of the County Commissioners to appoint their Election Commissioner and would definitely support legislation to make that the law. I believe that local control is important and the County Commissioners are already in charge of the funding. I believe it would also be helpful if half of the Senate was up for a vote every two years. This would be more effective in getting issues addressed in a timely manner. The Senate would still be a four year term.

District 19

Stephanie Clayton (incumbent Republican)

I would support a number of reforms in this area. I would like to see the Election Commissioner chosen by the County Commission. These elected officials hold nonpartisan office, so all voters can participate in choosing them, both in Primary and General elections. In the event that the Charter Commission decides to make these offices Partisan, I would be less inclined to support this type of selection. I could also support an Election Commissioner who was directly chosen by the People. I think that the office of the Secretary of State has too much power, and I would vote to support revocation of prosecutorial authority for this office. I support automatic voter registration. I support same-day voter registration. And, I support a universal standard for the way that ballots are validated, state-wide. It is a travesty that a ballot that would count in Shawnee County did not count in Johnson County. I support redistricting reform that removes the power of drawing legislative districts from legislators, and places it in the hands of the People through an elected, or appointed, nonpartisan board, with proper oversight from the Courts. For all election policy, I follow a general rule as I assess bills: if it makes voting easier and simpler, I support it, and if it makes voting more complicated or difficult, I oppose it.

Stephen Wyatt (Democrat)

The SoS should not have the right to appoint the Jo Co Election Commissioner. This needs to be a non-partisan elected position. Only the 4 most populous counties in the state have the commissioner appointed. This needs to be put back in the hands of the people. Kansas needs to allow for same day voter registration.



District 21

Jan Kessinger (Incumbent Republican)

I am a proponent of local control and support full authority of the Johnson County
Election Office at the local level. There is no need for the Secretary of State to appoint
the election commissioner in a handful of counties, but not all. Local authority is best.
The secretary of state should not be appointing our election commissioner.
I would propose easier voter registration and an open primary.

Becky Barber (Democrat)

Did not respond.

District 23

Susan Ruiz (Democrat)

Our government is built on being a representative democracy. I would fully support legislation that puts the power to elect our elections officials back into the hands of the people.


Linda Gallagher (incumbent Republican)

The Kansas Secretary of State should not have the right to appoint the Johnson County Election Commissioner. I would support legislation returning full authority over the Johnson County Election Office to local control. Currently, the county government is responsible for the election office budget with no authority over who is appointed to run the office. I am a proponent of local control in many situations, and this is one of them.

I propose several changes to improve the Kansas election system:

  • Remove prosecutorial authority in election fraud cases from the Secretary of State. I voted against the bill giving that authority to the Secretary of State. This authority needs to be returned to district attorneys or county attorneys. The Secretary of State is not required to be an attorney, and this function should be left to the judicial branch. Election fraud is not a big problem in Kansas, and the current Secretary of State has spent too much time and money going after a handful of fraud cases.
  • Make the permanent advance ballot open to all registered voters. Currently, only people with a permanent physical disability or illness may be approved for a permanent advanced ballot. Advanced voting by mail is becoming increasingly popular among voters because of its simplicity and convenience and because it allows people to vote early – thereby potentially stopping the robocalls and postcards reaching them. Passing legislation to allow any registered citizen to apply for permanent advanced ballot status would increase citizen participation in elections.
  • Establish a uniform set of rules and standards for county election offices to follow in counting provisional ballots. As we learned from the counting of provisional ballots cast in the August 2018 primary election, not all county election offices follow the same rules and standards, especially regarding voter signatures and the handling of unaffiliated voters who opt to affiliate with a party on Election Day. For example, there were considerable differences between Johnson County and Sedgwick County in how these processes were handled. Voters need to be able to rely on their election offices to get it right.
  • Consider allowing open primary elections. Kansas voter turnout is appallingly low, especially in primary elections. Far too many voters sit on the sidelines for primary elections because they choose not to affiliate with a party. For this reason, we should consider allowing unaffiliated voters to request a party ballot without having to join that party.

District 25

Melissa Rooker (incumbent Republican)

Yes, I support local control for all counties. Johnson County (Sedgwick, Shawnee and Wyandotte) should have the right to choose our Election Commissioner like all other counties already do. The integrity of that office should take precedence over the political preferences of the Secretary of State.

During the 2018 Legislative Session, I was proud to support a controversial bill giving county commissions, including Johnson County, budgetary oversight of the Election Commissioner’s office. The bill passed the House 77-40 with strong bipartisan support. I voted YES over the objections of the Secretary of State. During the hard-fought debate, an amendment was brought to allow the counties with an appointed commissioner the opportunity to elect their own. County officials from the affected counties asked that no amendments be added to the bill, giving them the best shot to get budgetary oversight. At their request, I, along with many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle honored their request and voted against the amendment. Unfortunately, the bill died in the Senate due to pressure from the Secretary of State.

The current Secretary of State has made election reform much more difficult. However, my record of standing up against Kris Kobach speaks for itself. I voted against granting the Secretary of State prosecutorial authority (SB 34 5/21/15). These cases should be left to the state’s prosecutor, the Attorney General. I voted against moving local elections from spring to fall (HB 2104 2/26/15), and oppose the goal of making those elections partisan. I also voted for an amendment to Sub HB 2365 (4/27/18) that prevented Kobach’s contempt of court fines from being paid with taxpayer dollars.

I am committed to additional reforms to election law that increase security, accountability, transparency and ballot access. To start, we need to ensure a statewide auditable paper trail, repeal burdensome restrictions on voter registration and stop the Crosscheck program. Reform to election law should also take care of the glaring conflict of interest that exists when the state’s chief election officer is a candidate for election.

I ask for your vote so I can continue to fight for safe, secure elections open to all Kansas citizens.

Rui Xu (Democrat)

The Secretary of State should not have the right to appoint the Johnson County Election Commissioner, and I would support returning the authority to local control.

We need to make it as easy to vote as possible. Unlike what Kris Kobach claims, the problem with our elections is not that too many people are voting or that people are voting illegally. The problem is that we make it difficult to vote and that cynicism and mistrust in our system leads to apathy and low turnout rates. To combat that, I support same day registration, ending Crosscheck, universal registration, and expanding the use of permanent advanced ballots.

When I’m out canvassing and talking with people who are unsure about voting, a common answer I’ll get is “well, I just don’t think I’m informed enough and I don’t want to affect policy because I didn’t do my research, so sometimes I’ll just stay home.” I try to sell them on the idea of advanced ballots because then they could do their research at home while they vote, so they can participate in our democracy from an informed place.

District 29

Brett Parker (incumbent Democrat)

The Secretary of State should not have the power to appoint election commissioners for the four largest counties. Johnson, Wyandotte, Sedgwick, and Shawnee counties should have local control on this issue, like the other 101 counties do. In the elections committee in 2017, I voted to restore local control to the four largest counties, but house leadership refused to allow a floor vote on the bill. Moving forward I would support direct election of the commissioners, appointment by the county commission, or having elections run by a professional staff under the county clerk.

James Todd (Republican)

When considering changes to the law, it is important to ignore the personalities of the people in office to avoid a biased analysis. The current Secretary of State might draw up strong feelings for or against him, but the office was there before him and the appointment law has been in place for more than 50 years. The intention of the law was to protect the urban areas of Kansas from party boss style politics like Kansas City, Missouri had with Pendergast. It is similar to the influence the Missouri Governor has over the KCMO police department. We should look at the history of the law to see how it worked in the past. I think recent events justify a reexamination of the current appointment power. If elected I would need to discus the matter with our County Commissioners and the New Secretary of State before making a decision on a change.

Robert Firestone (Libertarian)

Firestone has indicated to the Shawnee Mission Post that though his name will remain on the ballot, he will no longer be actively campaigning for the seat.

District 30

Brandon Woodard (Democrat)

The current system is failing the people of Johnson County. This is the third election year in a row where the Johnson County Election Office has experienced major issues related to reporting election results. In 2016, we didn’t know results of local races until 9:00 a.m. the next morning. In 2017, it was nearly midnight before results were finalized. In August of this year, we were back to finding out results the morning after the election. First it was our “old voting machines” but now the problem is our “new voting machines,” which we paid millions for.

I support local control, so I believe voters should elect the Johnson County election official rather than having a partisan official appoint the position. This is how more than 100 counties in the rest of the state choose their chief election official.

Beyond restoring election authority to local control, there are necessary enhancements to the election system that make it easier for Kansans to cast their vote. I would support same-day voter registration, a postage-paid return envelope for advance ballots, and investments in our election system to protect the sanctity of our votes.

Wendy Bingesser (Republican)

There is a good chance I would support legislation returning full authority over appointing the Johnson County Election Commissioner to the jurisdiction of the Board of County Commissioners. Only the most populated counties have their Election Commissioners appointed by the Kansas Secretary of State. It would make for better government to have a uniform system for selecting county election officials applied statewide. In addition, I would want to hear the perspective of the Kansas Secretary of State elected in 2018, either Scott Schwab or Brian McClendon, on how they believe the appointment process should be reformed before I make a final decision.

I would not advocate for any structural changes, such as adding a primary run-off, to the electoral system that is currently used in Kansas. I would advocate against any effort to change the nonpartisan system of election that is currently utilized for most local government offices.
Tomorrow we’ll publish the candidates’ responses to item three:

What’s your view of the competitive advantage Kansas should be seeking to have over neighboring states: Should it be primarily known as a place with low taxes? As a place with great public schools? As an easy place to live? As a great place to run a business?

About the author

Jay Senter
Jay Senter

Jay Senter is the founder and publisher of the Post.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in business at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, where he worked as a reporter and editor at The Badger Herald.

He went on to receive a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas, where he earned the Calder Pickett Award. While he was in graduate school, he also worked as a reporter for the Lawrence Journal-World.