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A Kansas sheriff is investigating claims of election fraud but evidence is scarce

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's a big election in Kansas this week. Voters will decide whether there's a constitutional right to an abortion. But hanging over the election is the shadow of the 2020 elections. The sheriff in the state's largest county says he's investigating claims of election fraud but won't provide specifics or evidence. And he's part of a larger movement of law enforcement officials who want to investigate elections. We're joined by Steve Vockrodt. He's the investigative editor of the Midwest Newsroom, a public media collaboration. Welcome.

STEVE VOCKRODT, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So can you tell us why this sheriff says he's investigating elections? And, I mean, is that even his job?

VOCKRODT: The sheriff's name is Calvin Hayden. He's a Republican. And he spoke recently to a gathering of law enforcement officials who call themselves constitutional sheriffs. And they believe county sheriffs have more authority than anyone else in their county at any level of government. And at that gathering, they called on sheriffs to do more investigations of the 2020 and future elections. Investigating election fraud isn't really something that Kansas sheriffs really do. Their role in elections is usually around security at election offices or crimes like disorderly conduct at a polling place. Hayden says that before 2020, he didn't think anything was really wrong with elections in Johnson County, an area that includes Kansas City's suburbs. But that year, the county voted for Joe Biden. Here's Hayden at a recent gathering of constitutional sheriffs.

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CALVIN HAYDEN: President Trump did not carry our county. First time since 1914 that Johnson County didn't vote Republican. Yeah. So it's kind of interesting.

VOCKRODT: At that gathering, Hayden also noted that Johnson County is growing rapidly and that the new residents are, quote, "moving some of their politics from the crummy places they live to my county, and it's not fun."

RASCOE: OK, but that doesn't mean they're not allowed to vote. So has Hayden gotten any more specific about what his claims of fraud are?

VOCKRODT: Hayden has said that he's received more than 200 tips from people who allege that they were witnesses or victims of fraud in Johnson County elections. But that's about as far as he's gone in terms of specifics. He said his investigation is a nonpartisan issue. So I asked for public records about things like incident reports or anything else based on these tips or anything related to his investigation.

RASCOE: And what did you find?

VOCKRODT: So his office provided me one incident report of just one tip among those 200 that he said he had. None of the major police departments in the county nor the Republican secretary of state had any evidence of election related crimes. And that incident report was about a 71-year-old woman who tried to vote early and alleged that some ballot-tampering law may have been violated. I couldn't get more details from her or the sheriff's department. I also got a memo that was written about a meeting where Hayden asked county election officials why ballot drop boxes were at public libraries in 2020 and whether the county would eliminate them for future elections. He also wanted his deputies to pick up ballots and be present during vote-counting. The county's attorney warned Hayden that his actions could look like he was trying to interfere with elections.

RASCOE: This is a big election on Tuesday. The fate of legalized abortion is on the ballot. Like, how does that tie in to all of the things that we've been talking about?

VOCKRODT: In addition to Hayden's vague claims about election fraud, some anti-abortion groups are also raising similar claims about ballot drop boxes and these kinds of vague allegations about fraud and this opaque investigation could feed into the narrative of a rigged election, just like in 2020, even if there's no evidence to back up the claims. Election officials here keep pointing out that the state's elections are well run, and there's been no evidence of fraud. And in 2020, Republicans generally did pretty well here.

RASCOE: Steve Vockrodt is the investigative editor of the Midwest Newsroom. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

VOCKRODT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Vockrodt