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The deadline to request a mail-in ballot in Kansas is Tuesday, Oct. 27. You can download this form or apply online. Kansas will begin mailing ballots to voters who requested one beginning Oct. 14. Ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by a voter’s local election authority by Nov. 6 — the Friday following Election Day — to count.
As local election officials across the country prepare for a historic influx of mail-in ballots this year, counties in Kansas are providing voters with an additional option for returning such ballots: drop boxes.
With just weeks to go until Election Day, Kansans voting by mail will be able to deliver their ballots at designated ballot drop box locations in their county, providing another option to ensure ballots are received on time. Kansas joins 37 other states and the District of Columbia in increasing the number of ballot drop boxes for this year’s election.
While ballot drop boxes have always been an available option for Kansas counties in an election year, the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic — combined with an anticipated increase in Kansans wanting to vote by mail early and avoid voting in person — prompted the secretary of state’s office to offer to pay for up to two ballot drop-off boxes in each of the state’s 105 counties.
According to the secretary of state’s office, 180 total drop boxes were ordered. Out of all 105 counties, 12 opted out entirely, 79 counties requested two boxes and 12 counties requested just one drop box. Johnson County requested seven drop boxes; Wabaunsee County requested three.
“The more options that you’re going to give people to get those ballots back, the better, especially when you don’t want people to be congregating in the same places,” said Patrick Miller, a politics professor at the University of Kansas.
“If you have, particularly, those larger counties, the more populous counties, where you have thousands or even tens of thousands of people who will be receiving a mail ballot, then having more options and easier options for them to get that ballot back, to me, is important.”
Responding to voters’ concerns
The announced expansion of the drop boxes followed the state’s Aug. 4 primary election, where 315,079 requests were filed for a mail ballot ahead of the primaries and 261,182 of those were returned to a local election authority, according to data from the Kansas secretary of state’s office.
Still, 1,495 mail-in ballots were received after the state’s postmark and delivery deadline, meaning they were rejected and did not count toward the total vote tally.
Local election officials in the state’s most populous counties are now seeing even more requests for mail-in ballots ahead of Election Day, underscoring the need for ballot drop boxes as an alternative, secure option for voters. Johnson County Election Commissioner Connie Schmidt said the election office has received about 148,000 requests for mail-in ballots for the general election. In Douglas County, home to the University of Kansas, over 28,000 mail-in ballots have been requested so far. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot in Kansas is Oct. 27.
Schmidt said the election office has been receiving phone calls from voters concerned about the ability of the U.S. Postal Service to handle a large quantity of mailed ballots and deliver them before the state’s cutoff deadline, particularly at a time when the agency has been marred by funding woes and slowdowns in mail delivery. In Kansas, ballots mailed through USPS must be postmarked by Nov. 3 and received by the local election authority by Nov. 6.
“The drop boxes are in response to those concerns by voters,” Schmidt said. “So they will have an option: Instead of returning their voted ballot in the mail system, they can take it right straight to us by taking it to a Johnson County Election Office drop box.”
‘The safest, most secure method’
Ballot drop boxes are not the only return option for mailed ballots — voters can also drop them off at their local election office, any advanced voting location or any polling location on Election Day.
But what makes the ballot drop boxes particularly convenient this year is that it will allow voters to safely submit their ballots while minimizing exposure to crowds or long lines at an election office or polling location. At some locations, voters will be able to place their ballots in the drop boxes from their car window.
Once Kansas begins mailing out absentee ballots to voters who requested them on Oct. 14, voters can deliver their completed ballot at a drop box at any time of day. The ballots will then be collected by authorized election staffers and delivered to the local election office.
It’s an option that may be convenient for voters who work during the day and may not have the ability to visit their election office or an advanced voting location that may be far away.
“We do have voters that work different shifts here,” said Melissa Schnieders, deputy election commissioner in Sedgwick County. “This is a 24/7 drop-off. … So it just gives a really good option for people that may not have another way of getting that ballot back.”
Counties will have several safeguards in place to protect the drop-off boxes and the ballots inside them. The secretary of state’s office recommends that ballot drop boxes be emptied at least once a day by at least two county election officers or sworn, bipartisan election boards.
In Johnson County, ballot drop boxes will be open to the public from Oct. 17 until 7 p.m. Nov. 3. Schmidt said every ballot drop box will be bolted to the ground and monitored by 24-hour security cameras.
Ballots from the drop boxes in Johnson County will be collected by two teams, each comprising one Democratic election worker and one Republican election worker — one team will collect ballots from the northern half of the county, and a second will monitor the southern portion. Schmidt said ballots will be collected three times a day and then delivered to the Johnson County Election Office.
“That is the safest, most secure method of returning your voted mail ballot, straight back to the election office,” Schmidt said.
All about the location
With Election Day just weeks away, local election authorities must consider where to strategically place their drop-off boxes to ensure they are as accessible as possible to voters in a given county.
While the secretary of state’s office offered two drop boxes for each Kansas county, some of the state’s most populous counties purchased more drop boxes using funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.
In Douglas County, where there are about 80,000 registered voters, election officials purchased eight drop boxes and received two from the secretary of state, for a total of 10 throughout the county. County Clerk Jamie Shew said one drop box will be in each of the three outlying towns in the county: Baldwin City, Eudora and Lecompton. The rest will be spread around Lawrence, but none on the KU campus.
There will be eight total drop boxes in Johnson County, the state’s most populous county. Drop boxes will primarily be located outside local libraries across the county, from DeSoto in the northwest to Spring Hill in the south. There will also be a drop box outside the Johnson County Election Office in Olathe and the northeast county offices in Mission.
In Sedgwick County, home to over 1.4 million registered voters this election cycle, officials put drop boxes in proximity to well-traveled locations, Schnieders said. Two boxes will be drive-ups, and the other 12 will be walk-ups.
“We chose, within the city of Wichita, locations that were close to highly popular voting locations. Places that were near bus lines, that was really important to us in case we have voters who may have different transportation needs,” she said.
But the availability of drop boxes, and the convenience of accessing them, varies by county. Wyandotte County, for instance, has only two drop boxes, despite being one of the most populous counties in Kansas. Frances Sheppard, assistant election commissioner of Wyandotte County, said the county doesn’t yet know if it will purchase additional boxes.
Disparities in the number of ballot drop boxes available within a given county could mean limitations on where voters return their absentee ballots. That could be an issue for a county like Wyandotte, KU’s Miller said, considering it’s home to a high number of voters of color, particularly Latinx voters.
“You have a great disparity there in terms of potential demand, the population and the issues that come with population, like traffic and how much of a hassle it can be to drive to a box to deposit it,” Miller said of mail-in ballots.
Davis Hammet, founder of Loud Light, a statewide organization focused on youth civic participation in Kansas, said the discrepancies are reflective of a larger issue in the state, where some counties offer a bevy of services and options for voters, while others may only offer the bare minimum.
“Although we’re making advancements in this area, the likelihood of your vote counting still depends on what county you live in,” Hammet said. “So you have 105 counties, each really making a lot of independent judgment calls.”
If a voter who requests a mailed ballot decides to instead vote in person at their local polling place on Election Day, they will have to cast a provisional ballot, which may not ultimately be counted.
But Miller from KU advised that voters who do request a mail ballot should follow through with completing and submitting that ballot.
“If you ordered a mail ballot, keep the mail ballot and vote the mail ballot,” he said.
“Do not vote a provisional ballot. Vote your mail ballot, but vote it responsibly. And that means following all the directions, carefully and precisely. And taking that ballot back in person to a drop box or to a local elections office.”
Celisa Calacal is the assistant editor at The Beacon. Follow her on Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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