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Jessica Huseman: Here’s how Kansas Republicans could actually make elections more secure (Column)

Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Jessica Huseman is the editorial director of Votebeat.

Republican lawmakers in Kansas this year have made a dramatic show of their determination to secure the votes of Kansans. Frequently dipping into outright lies, Kansas Republicans have claimed they believe former President Donald Trump was the actual victor and insulted the state’s election systems, long managed by Republican state officials. But in the gigantic voting bill they rallied enough votes to push through despite the governor’s veto, not a single provision addresses Kansas’s most obvious, and numerous, election security problems.

The state ranks among the lowest in the country across rankings of election security, regardless of political affiliation or advocacy position of the organization doing the ranking. Stunningly, the state still allows counties to use paperless voting machines that make audits impossible, and many county officials admit the computers and technology they use to access crucial state registration systems are often only thinly protected.

The state has long prided itself on its status as the home to the voter roll police, but it has among the worst list maintenance procedures in the country given its failure to use any technology that allows it to check its rolls against the rolls of other states — a far cry from the state’s public image.

After years of insisting that Crosscheck — a deeply flawed voter roll matching system that was loudly championed by former Secretary of State Kris Kobach — was industry best, even the most ardent state officials had to back down from their support of the program in 2018 when it became clear that the program relied on arcane cyber security methods, and routinely shared usernames and passwords by plaintext email, storing results on a deeply insecure server in Arkansas.

The secretary’s office hasn’t run the matching system since, and has so far chosen not to replace it. While dozens of other states have joined the Electronic Registration Information System (ERIC), Kansas has resisted. Crosscheck only matched potential double registrations on first name, last name and birthday — a deeply flawed method that catches 99 false positives for every 1 positive — whereas ERIC uses far more robust data. The program uses department of motor vehicles data, email addresses, Social Security Numbers and other quni identifying information to catch redundant registrations with alarming accuracy in a far more secure way than Crosscheck could meaningfully accomplish.

It’s not clear why Republicans in Kansas are so resistant to joining the program, which has been joined by deeply conservative and liberal states alike. But Kobach spent years insulting the program in order to hold up Crosscheck as the model, stopping all efforts to join ERIC in their tracks. Scott Schwab — a Republican who succeeded Kobach and has just announced a bid for re-election — hasn’t discussed ERIC publicly.

Kansas is also one of only a tiny handful of states that continues to allow its counties to use paperless machines, making it impossible to conduct a post-election audit. This fact appears to have escaped many Kansas Republicans, as they didn’t ban the purchase of new paperless machines until 2018. Four counties still use these machines. Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Republican, said he would introduce legislation (which he didn’t attach his name to and wasn’t voted on) that would ban their use entirely. His proposal includes no funding for the affected counties to purchase new machines, though he offered that the counties could apply for federal grants.

Not so fast, as the legislation Republicans forced through would ban counties from accepting election funding from any entity that is not the state of Kansas. While federal funding is generally passed through the states, that’s not always the case. The law’s impact on this funding — like so much else — is unclear. Regardless, one-fourth of Kansas counties received funding for the 2020 election from the Center for Tech and Civil Life’s funding program, totaling millions of dollars.

“This generous grant will help our Election Office facilitate November’s General Election,” said Tabitha Lehman, the Sedgwick County election commissioner. “Our goal is to ensure all voters can vote in person or by mail as safely and efficiently as possible. We will continue to take all precautions to keep voters and poll workers safe while practicing their civic duty.”

This money was necessary expressly because of the failure of the Republican Legislature to ensure necessary funding, and this year’s bill offers little hope that they’ll significantly increase it in the future. Forcing starved counties to rely only on state funding will have a net negative effect on state security, and ensure that these counties continue to use patently unsecure machines.

Kansas’s existing audit procedures are also well below what is typical. State law requires that only 1% of precincts must be audited, while other states typically require more than 3% of precincts. In other states, at least a percentage of all precincts’ ballots must be audited. And because four counties use paperless systems, those counties cannot be — and have never been — audited.

And while Schwab announced in 2020 he wanted counties to use dedicated hardware to connect to the voter registration system — a marked improvement that would sidestep the poor information security practices of the counties — no movement has been made on this plan. Schwab said counties would no longer be allowed to use computers owned by the county to access the system, and would be required to log in only through equipment provided by the state for that specific purpose.

“Right now, counties maintain that list on a county computer that can, maybe, be touched by the appraiser’s office, where some young intern clicks on an email that says, ‘Click here for a free Xbox,’ ” Schwab said at the time. “This is probably the best way that we can defend our database.”

And it remains so.

Kansas has a hard road ahead when it comes to truly securing voting for Kansans, but no progress will be made while Republicans in the state lie to their voters and offer “security” bills that provide no such security. Republicans will have to put money and smarter upgrades on the table if they want to meet their goals for secure elections.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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