Cille King has been a poll worker for years, something she says is her duty as part of her role as co-president of the statewide chapter of the League of Women’s Voters.
It wasn’t a surprise that crowds at her Douglas County polling place were a bit lighter, with over a third of voters in the county electing to cast a ballot by mail.
Thus it should also not have been a surprise that more voters came to the polls despite having requested an absentee ballot, with some simply leaving it in their cars or misplacing it at their houses.
But it was a different class of voters that gave her pause among the 20 or so residents who voted by provisional ballot, meaning their ballot won’t be counted until after records have been reconciled to ensure they did not vote twice.
Despite applying for a no-excuse absentee ballot, some voters across the state found it simply never arrived in the mail.
One of those voters was Leawood resident Frances Puhl, who applied for a ballot and requested it be sent to the out-of-town address where she would be on Election Day.
But after the ballot didn’t come, she contacted the Johnson County Board of Elections, who said her application had never arrived in the first place. After also reaching out to her local post office she deduced that it was either delayed or lost in the mail.
Normally, those voters would not raise much alarm. But currently, mail delays are plaguing large metropolitan areas across the country, with residents in Chicago, Philadelphia and elsewhere encountering backlogs stretching for days.
The issue hit home in neighboring states as well. At the same time Kansas officials were processing the state’s mail ballots Tuesday night, the League of Women Voters in St. Louis reported that absentee ballots in that city had taken upward of 24 days to reach election offices.
The moves have largely been attributed to decisions made by the new head of the U.S. Postal Service, Louis DeJoy, who has slashed overtime and instructed workers to leave mail at the post office if necessary.
It has caused alarm among members of Congress and voting advocates, who worry they could threaten the ability of residents to vote absentee in the November general election.
And for Puhl, the error was a fatal blow to her hopes of voting in the primary — she reached out to local election officials the day after the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot had passed.
"I couldn’t get back to town in time and by the time I found out the logistics weren’t going to work, either for the election office or for me to get back there," Puhl said.
Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab told reporters on Election Day that cases like what Puhl experienced were few and far between, noting that "we have heard nothing from post offices across the state that they are being overrun."
Still, he cautioned, it was better for Kansans to deliver their absentee ballot to the county elections office if at all possible.
"Unless you absolutely have to trust the post office, it is better to just drop it off," Schwab said.
King said there was real worry about what is going on at USPS and what it might mean for voters in Kansas.
"I think those are all very unfortunate and misguided attempts and I would like to see them end and more money given to the postal service to provide the service that they do to the public," she said.
Postal officials in the Topeka area reported that the handling of mail ballots went smoothly, a sentiment echoed by Shawnee County Election Commissioner Andrew Howell.
Howell said there were already discussions at the state level to ensure a smooth November election, even though the trickle of primary mail ballots continued to trickle in.
Overall he said he was "fairly happy" with how the process went.
"The post office has done a better job than they have ever had before of having people whose job it is to reach out to us and engage, talk about how much and when and what," Howell said. "I think the post office is really putting some effort into communication … and we do the same thing with them."
In Shawnee County, 16,485 absentee ballots were requested, a total which dwarfs the number from 2018. Only 14 additional ballots were re-mailed because a voter had reported it had gotten lost in the mail, Howell said.
Statewide the results were even more striking, with over 315,000 ballots requested — a six-fold increase over 2018 and 253,297 were returned as of Thursday afternoon, according to the secretary of state’s office.
But that didn’t necessarily calm fears in Washington, D.C., and in states across the country that voting by mail will not be as simple as it was in the Kansas primary, owing largely to issues within USPS.
Mark Inglett, a spokesman for the USPS region that includes Kansas, said in an email that the organization does recommend voters mail their ballots at least one week before they must be received.
But USPS is still well-positioned to handle any increase in volume due to ballots, Inglett said, and staffing adjustments would be made if necessary to cope.
Moreover, DeJoy told the USPS Board of Governors on Friday that members of Congress needed to focus more on operational reforms within the organization, rather than wringing their hands about "isolated operational incidents."
"Drama and delay does not get the mail delivered on time, nor does it pay our bills," he said. "Without timely legislative and regulatory reform, we will be forced to take aggressive measures to cut costs and bridge the divide."
Another issue is the potential solution posited by Schwab and others — dropping your ballot off in-person — could be difficult depending on where you live.
Some counties only have one place to drop off a ballot, usually at the county elections office. For those living in a far-flung part of a large county, that could entail a lengthy drive.
"I think a lot of counties aren’t providing that and it would be a really good service," King said.
In Shawnee County there was just one drop site at the elections office, for instance, although Howell did note that ballots can be returned to any polling place, something many voters took advantage of.
Other tweaks are likely before November, Howell noted, especially as offices brace for the sheer volume of voters applying for a ballot.
He recalls one day when over 60 voters emailed their application within a minute, rapidly filling up his inbox and making it hard to quickly respond within the 24-hour window he usually sets forth as a processing goal.
"We’re going to spend some time going over those processes and making sure we’re ramped up to handle that," he said.
Thanks to COVID-19, however, mail-in voting is here to stay as a staple of the state's electoral system and candidates and parties are trying to make the most of it..
Ben Meers, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said officials were planning ways to educate voters about the system ahead of November — including a major push to get out the vote in October, right around when ballots would need to be mailed.
Part of the education surrounding mail-in voting, Meers said, is convincing voters that it is a reliable and secure way to vote.
And while he acknowledged there were "isolated cases" of ballots being lost in the mail, Meers expressed confidence in the system ahead of the fall.
"I would hate for anyone to struggle with their ability to vote but I don’t think those isolated issues, hopefully, won’t have any impact on the bigger successes that we will see in vote by mail programs," he said.