More voting options, fewer polling sites planned in Kansas

“It's like every election, it's an educated guess." “You never know for sure where to deploy resources.”

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BELLE PLAINE, Kan. – Kansas voters will have more options this year to cast their ballot, easing the pressure on fewer available in-person polling sites on Election Day amid pandemic concerns that have closed traditional voting locations in many churches and nursing homes, election officials said.

Local election officials who have been scrambling to find alternative handicap-accessible sites that are large enough to allow for social distancing on Election Day are counting on more voters using advance ballots that can be mailed in, dropped in new ballot boxes or taken to polling places.

Some Kansas counties are also opening more polling sites – and opening them sooner than usual – for in-person early voting this year.

“We are hoping more people choose to vote by mail instead of voting in person,” said Johnson County Election Commissioner Connie Schmidt. “And hopefully more people will vote early in person so we can spread voters over a longer period of time and take some of that burden off of Election Day polling places.”

Johnson County had 209 polling sites in the 2016 general election and expects to have around 170 polling locations this year. Shawnee County is down to 94 polling places from the 100 it had in 2016. Douglas County has 43 voting sites compared with 63 in the last presidential election.

“Some of these polling places are going to have quite a few voters,” said Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew.

Sedgwick County is an outlier because it has gradually added more polling sites over the past few years and plans to have 83 polling locations this year, compared with 64 in 2016.

For the general election, the Kansas secretary of state’s office in August ordered 180 ballot drop boxes for counties that wanted them. The boxes, each costing $2,029, were paid for by coronavirus rescue package funding.

Some counties had already bought ballot boxes. Sedgwick County had ordered 14 ballot in May that it will use in addition to the two it gets from the state. During the 2016 presidential election, Sedgwick County had no ballot drop boxes, said Sandy Gritz, the county’s chief deputy election commissioner.

Douglas County also purchased additional ballot drop boxes itself and will have 11 available for the general election, compared with only one in 2016.

Since 2012, Douglas County has sent a mailer for advance voting and has seen a “significant drop in our Election Day traffic” each subsequent election, Shew said.

“We have been doing a lot over the past few years to increase capacity to handle larger amounts of advance ballots, so I think we have been creating systems and buying equipment that will help us be ready for this spot,” Shew said. “And I think our citizens have been ready for it.”

During the August primary, 41% of Kansas voters statewide cast a mail-in ballot. Election officials are anticipating that record numbers of mail ballots in the general election will further ease demand for in-person voting.

“It’s like every election, it’s an educated guess,” said Shawnee County Election Commissioner Andrew Howell. “You never know for sure where to deploy resources.”