Ellis County error leaves some wondering: What happens when election officials are on the ballot?

Andrew Bahl
From left, Ellis County Deputy Clerk Bobbi Dreiling and County Clerk Donna Maskus check ballots in 2018 at the Ellis County Administrative Center in Hays.

A ballot printing snafu in western Kansas has some asking questions that haven’t been raised since the days of GOP Secretary of State Kris Kobach: How involved should local officials be in administering elections when they themselves are on the ballot?

Election officials in Ellis County discovered 3,800 ballots that erroneously labeled the Kansas Senate District 40 race as being for the U.S. Senate. The mistake was discovered midday Friday and halted in-person advance voting for three days.

In-person voting has resumed as of Thursday morning, Ellis County Clerk Donna Maskus said, and additional hours are being added to compensate for the lost days.

“The mistake was made,” Maskus said in an interview Friday. “I made it very clear what had happened and was apologetic but it was made and we have to go on. We are very cautious how we handle things and it was just one of those things that happened and we are dealing with it. Our community has been very genuine and understanding.”

Local Democrats are still up in arms, although a legal challenge is unlikely unless the margin of victory in the Kansas Senate race between incumbent Republican Sen. Rick Billinger, R-Goodland, and Democrat Larry Dreiling is fewer than 3,800 votes.

But a bigger issue still exists for some locals about potential conflicts of interest when election officials, or members of their staff, are on the ballot.

Statewide, county clerks handle election administration duties except in the state’s four most highly populated counties, Sedgwick, Johnson, Wyandotte and Shawnee, where they are appointed by the secretary of state. Often, the elections are uncontested and receive little fanfare.

In Ellis County, Maskus is not running for reelection. But one of her deputies, Bobbi Dreiling, who is unrelated to Larry Dreiling, is on the ballot.

She is being met with a write-in campaign from Laura Allen, a Hays resident affiliated with the local Democratic Party who said she was running in an effort to bring new blood to the role.

The Ellis County clerk’s race hasn’t been contested since 2008, Allen said.

“If we’re having an election, people deserve a choice,” she said. “It feels like our offices are handed down, even though they’re not necessarily supposed to be. It is just the next person in line.”

In July, Allen requested that Bobbi Dreiling not be involved in the election administration process.

In a reply, Maskus brushed off the request and pledged the election administration will “continue doing our work per Kansas statute.”

She said Dreiling and other staff members wouldn’t be on the board charged with handling and counting ballots.

“We will conduct our office in a professional way as we always have been,” Maskus wrote. “The 2020 Elections will be extra busy and we look forward to that as we perform our duties in this office.”

She reiterated that sentiment Friday.

“Every four years clerks are up for reelection,” Maskus said. “I went through that, we all go through that. We still have a job to do.”

In Kansas, vote counting is handled by a local election board, although the state’s election administration guidelines note that they will receive guidance from the clerk on some issues, such as pre-canvassing advance ballots.

But Allen said the conservative nature of local politics in the county left her distrustful of the elections board as well.

“I feel like the clerk and the election board should be completely bipartisan but I don’t feel like that is the case in Ellis County,” she said. “We’re very, very red, we vote very Republican."

Katie Koupal, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office, said county clerks and their staff should “never be left alone with the ballots.”

Recusals, however, are generally not necessary, as she noted someone needs to be in charge of carrying out election duties.

But Ellis County Democrats argue the printing issue should have been caught by Maskus and her team.

They claim that their candidates and local party officials weren’t provided a sample ballot as required under state law, something that they believe could have caught the error.

Maskus said she would “have to check” but was under the impression the sample ballots were distributed.

“As I understood, it did go out and it is to go out,” she said.

Critics also point to issues stemming from a 2018 Kansas House race in which Democrats challenged the results on the grounds that the voting machines weren’t properly calibrated. The lawsuit was later dropped.

Still, John Bird, the attorney who filed the 2018 suit, said the situation was “intolerable” and raised the possibility of a lawsuit in 2020 as well.

“It is a nightmare situation because of incompetence,” Bird said.

Similar questions have been raised about conflicts of interest nationally in recent years, including in Kansas.

As votes were being counted in a razor-thin 2018 Republican primary for governor, then-Gov. Jeff Colyer requested that Secretary of State Kris Kobach recuse himself from the process.

He argued that Kobach had been providing incorrect information to local election officials about which votes to count.

“It has come to my attention that your office is giving advice to county election officials — as recently as a conference call yesterday — and you are making public statements on national television which are inconsistent with Kansas law and may serve to suppress the vote in the ongoing Kansas primary election process,” Colyer wrote in a letter at the time.

Kobach eventually did recuse himself and won the nomination by 361 votes, later losing to Gov. Laura Kelly in the general election.

Kathleen Hale, a professor of political science at Auburn University and an expert on election administration, noted that ultimately voters serve as a check on election officials if their performance lags.

A candidate with experience in an election office could be a boon, Hale said, and voters will be able to size up that record.

“It is a job where professionalism and experience are extremely important and I think election officials across the country realize that,” she said. “So to the extent where you have somebody as a candidate who has that kind of experience I think that would be a strong positive. If the public thinks the way the election office is being run is not a positive, then that’s not a positive for an internal candidate.”

In Ellis County, Allen acknowledged the kerfuffle could actually help her make an effective case to voters.

She said she didn’t believe there would be any purposeful attempt by county election officials to undermine her but believed there was a risk that subconscious bias could kick in.

“I don’t want to make the assumption that anybody is going to do anything overtly unfair,” Allen said. “We’re human, and as humans we’re biased to ourselves. And I also believe to a degree with her being a deputy clerk and working in that office for the last eight years there is a vested interest for everybody there.”

Hale said that, for the most part, any errors stem from the many balls election officials are forced to juggle.

“It doesn’t mean mistakes won’t happen,” she said. “It also doesn’t mean every mistake is an inherently evil act.”