County clerk explains election process, emphasis on process

By Adam Strunk

As long as votes were cast before the end of Election Day, they should be counted.

Judging from the cacophony on social media, many Americans are confused about how elections and vote counting works.

Various groups of people, depending on their politics, have been on social media, bemoaning the fact that legal votes are counted after 7 p.m. on Election Day or the fact that vote counts change as more votes are counted or the lack of immediate results following an election.

“I think they’re starting to realize election isn’t a day; it’s a process,” Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho said.

While the regular workings of our electoral system might be seemingly new information to many Americans this week, running an election is old hat for long-time Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho.

Piepho took time to explain the ins and outs of the election process while misinformation swirled online during the 2020 election.

In Harvey County and across the country, Election Day takes place on the first Tuesday of November, but that process begins far earlier, thanks to advanced ballots and early voting.

Mail-in ballots begin to be sent out 20 days before the election, under state statute. Early voting takes place two weeks before Election Day in the county. Then comes in-person voting on Election Day.

All voting–advanced ballots, early voting, and in-person voting–is completed by 7 p.m. that night, Piepho said.  Following comes ballot counting, waiting for mail-in ballots postmarked before 7 p.m. Tuesday to come in the mail, and sorting provisional ballots.

Piepho said, at this point, counts and totals are unofficial. They only become official after the county board of canvassers votes and makes decisions on which provisional ballots to accept and certifies the total number of votes.

In Harvey County, unofficial numbers are available on Tuesday night and released by the county. State law allows Harvey County to tally the mail-in ballot counts and early voting counts before Election Day finishes, as long as the county doesn’t announce totals before 7 p.m.

This year, as many others, Piepho shortly provided the public with the totals of advanced ballots and early voting he received shortly after polls closed.

Other states, like Pennsylvania, and Nevada, have been criticized for slow election results. Piepho said,  however, these states have different laws prohibiting them from counting mail-in ballots until Election Day is over.

“Our job isn’t done on election night,” he said. “We have to work on write-ins. I have an audit this afternoon. If on top of that we’re trying to open and count advance ballots, I feel for them. I wish the media would just wait until they’re done.”

Piepho said, in his perfect world, results wouldn’t be released until days after the election and all counts are made official. He did acknowledge, however, he didn’t think that would be an especially popular action with the public.

The coverage of the updating of counts has caused plenty of concern and conspiracy theories nationwide. However, all the votes being counted were cast on or before Election Day. The changes in who is ahead simply have to do with when the votes are counted.

In Harvey County, for instance, Democratic incumbent Tim Hodge was up by nearly 11 percent of the vote after early ballots were counted. In Harvey County, such numbers were made public first. Following, that lead switched the opposite way as Election Day ballots were counted. In the end, Hodge lost by 11 points.

In states like Pennsylvania, Election Day voting totals were made public first, as the state wasn’t allowed to start counting the mail-in ballots until polls had closed, and with millions to count, the process took time.

Election Day voting favored Donald Trump, who early results had leading in those states. As more mail-in ballots were counted, the lead dwindled until, eventually, Joe Biden was shown to be ahead in the race. Piepho said, in Kansas, mail-in ballots will continue to be counted up until three days after the election, as long as they’re postmarked by 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Again, the voting is done by election night. His office, under law, simply has to wait three days on the ballots to come in by mail.

“As long they’re voted before the close of polls, then their vote should be counted,” Piepho said.

Of note, the three-day allocation was passed in recent years in Kansas by a Republican controlled House and Senate as well as a Republican governor.

Election night not deciding the results is nothing new in Harvey County. In 2016 and 2018, it took more than a week to find out who won the District 72 race, thanks to a close vote count, the number of provisional ballots to be accepted by the Harvey County Board of Canvassers and valid mail-in ballots coming in following the election.

In 2018, Hodge trailed Republican challenger Steve Kelly after election night, only to get enough votes come in through mail-in and provisional ballots to win the race.

With many having questions on how mail-in ballots work, Piepho explained the process, as well.

First, in normal years people have to ask the county to provide them a mail-in ballot throughout the year.

“Everyone else needs to fill out a single advance request,” he said.

This year, thanks to COVID-19, the county sent out information that included the request for one, should voters want it.

Piepho said advanced or mail-in ballots have been an option for decades in Kansas, though they haven’t been promoted in the past like they have this year, thanks to COVID-19.

People have to be registered voters. The county has to check their identification, often using a driver’s license number for cross reference. After the paperwork is completed, they’re added to the list to receive a mail ballot.

The county then receives returned ballots through the mail, as well as the county drop box, at the courthouse or at polling locations on Election Day.

Anyone who is sent an advanced ballot is removed from the voter rolls at polling locations. Should they try to vote in person, they are flagged by the county’s election software and can only vote by filling out a provisional ballot.

Piepho said usually the people who are flagged are encouraged to return home, fill out their advance ballot and bring it back.

Piepho said, should they still vote in person, their provisional ballot is then cross checked against records. If they already voted by mail, the provisional ballot is rejected. That takes place at the board of canvassers meeting after all mail-in ballots are in.

This ensures no vote is counted twice.

Piepho didn’t have a number yet in this election for how many people voted both by mail and in person through a ballot.

In 2018, he said no one double voted.

He said he believed a few people got confused and did so during the 2020 primary.

Piepho said, along with fail safes to prevent double voting in Kansas, an additional level of scrutiny is involved.

For a mail ballot to be valid, it must be signed by the voter. The county cross references that signature against the signature it has on record. Only if the signature matches will it accept the ballot.

Under state law, if there is no signature, the county must contact the person the ballot belongs to and give them the opportunity to sign the ballot. The county so far has 35 unsigned ballots it’s contacting voters about for this election.

“In some ways, it may be considered that we’re doing a deeper verification with these by comparing signature,” he said.

Any ballots received in the mail after Election Day are also checked for a postmark. If the ballot does not have a mark proving it was sent before 7 p.m. of Election Day, it is not counted.

Piepho said all of these measures, in his opinion, makes the risk of voter fraud minimal.

“It’s difficult to do at a polling place, and it’s difficult to do through a mail-in process,” he said.

He added that his office has races randomly audited, making it unlikely for a county clerk or election officials to feel secure in changing votes or swaying a race.

He said other states also have similar checks and security measures governing the vote.

“The processes are all basically the same,” he said. “We use basically the same equipment. The process is basically the same. We’re just limited by statutes and state laws on when and how we do it.”

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