BELLE PLAINE — More than 1,500 Kansans did not have their votes counted in the August primary because their mail ballots arrived too late, but many of them were uncounted because voters didn’t mail them on time, election data shows.
A 2017 state law that aims to mitigate the impact of mail delays allows ballots postmarked on Election Day to be counted as long as they are received in local election offices within three days. That means that ballots postmarked on or before Aug. 4 would have been counted had they arrived by Aug. 7.
Uncounted ballots from two of the state’s most populous counties indicate that most of the problem was people mailing ballots too late to get an Aug. 4 postmark, but it is unclear whether the late ballots were simply mailed after the election or whether there was a delay at the Post Office in stamping the postmark on them.
Some ballots always arrive too late to be counted. Amid the pandemic, the number of mail ballots cast statewide in the Kansas primary was eight times the number cast in the 2018 primary. Voters returned about 83% of mail ballots sent out to them this year, compared with about 59% of mail ballots sent out in the 2018 primary.
The uncounted ballots come amid voter concerns about mail operation changes and delivery delays. A federal judge recently blocked controversial Postal Service changes that have slowed mail nationwide, calling them "a politically motivated attack on the efficiency of the Postal Service" before the November election.
Weekly data analyzed by The Associated Press shows a drop-off in mail delivery times for the two Postal Service districts covering Kansas. In the district that covers most of the state, including Wichita and Topeka, on-time delivery of first-class mailed dropped from 93% at the beginning of July to around 88% the week before the election. The district that covers Kansas City and the rest of far eastern Kansas saw on-time delivery drop from around 91% at the start of July to 87% in the week before the primary.
The Postal Service’s goal is to deliver first class mail within two to five days 95% of the time. Election officials in postal districts that miss that mark by wide margins have been urging voters to return their ballots early to ensure they don’t get ensnared in delivery delays.
About 261,000 Kansas voters, or 41% of primary voters, cast mail-in primary ballots amid the coronavirus pandemic. The secretary of state’s office said roughly two-thirds of Democratic voters used mail-in ballots, while roughly two-thirds of Republicans preferred to vote in person.
In early summer, Post Office officials removed a mail-sorting machine in Wichita, the state’s most populous city. Four mail sorting machines were also taken out of postal facilities in Kansas City, Missouri, said Chris Bentley, president of the National Postal Mail Handlers Union Local 297.
Preliminary data obtained by The Associated Press through open records requests to state and local election officials showed that 1,506 ballots — a little more than half of a percent of the mail ballots cast — arrived too late to be counted in the Kansas primary.
"We would all like to see all the ballots counted, so that is disappointing," said Cille King, co-president of the League of Women Voters in Kansas. "But I don’t know that it is particularly high."
Voting rights advocate Davis Hammet said five state legislative primary races were won by 50 or fewer votes, and noted that the secretary of state has the authority to allow counties to extend the count beyond three days.
"I think just so many states are so much worse right now that this doesn’t feel as bad and is a relative thing," Hammet said. "But it is bad and it should be addressed. Right now some states are just a disaster."
While vote margins in statewide primaries for the U.S. Senate were wide enough that outcomes wouldn’t have been affected by the late ballots, it’s not clear whether they might have tipped some down-ballot races in Kansas.
For example, a seven-term state legislator in a safe Democratic district in Kansas City, Kansas, was ousted in the primary by a teenager who won by just 14 votes. That district is located in Wyandotte County, which had 56 uncounted late ballots.
Kansas election officials said they did not know whether the rate of late mail ballots received this year was up because that data was not collected statewide for the 2018 primary.
Sedgwick County had 203 ballots, about 0.44% of mail ballots cast, that came in too late to be counted in this year’s primary. Only a dozen of those were postmarked on or before Election Day, so most would not have been counted even if they’d arrived on time. That compares with the 2018 primary when the county had only six mail ballots, or 0.09%, that were postmarked after the election.
Johnson County had by far the most uncounted late ballots: 673 that were postmarked after Election Day. It’s not clear if those ballots were mailed by Election Day but not postmarked that day, or were mailed later.
Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab said late ballots happen every election cycle — which is why his office has been urging people to not return them in the mail and instead take them to polling places, county election offices or ballot drop boxes.
Wichita resident Mark Neas said he and his wife, Lisa, dropped off her ballot at a post office box in Andover on Election Day, but it was two minutes after the scheduled pickup for that box. Her name was on the county’s list of uncounted late ballots.
"It was our fault this time, it was not the Post Office’s fault," he said.