Expelled Republican election commissioner condemns politics of voting in Kansas

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TOPEKA — A former Republican election official is calling out lawmakers from both parties for harmful, partisan framing of election policy issues rather than focusing on joint solutions to improve voting.

In more than nine years serving as election commissioner for Sedgwick County, Tabitha Lehman said, she saw several instances of policymakers acknowledging election policies they support could suppress the vote of some marginalized Kansans to benefit their party. This frequent and increasingly present partisan bickering on issues of election security has sowed significant public distrust of the system, she said.

Lehman, who was appointed to the election post by former Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, said she has heard many conspiracy theories of voter fraud coming from her own party. But she also expressed concerns with criticism from Democrats over laws she feels are necessary for election security.

“I can see the inequities on both sides and became even more impassioned with standing up for the voters instead of a political party,” Lehman said on a recent podcast recorded by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. “You want to do what’s right for your voters, and you want to do it in the best way you can, and when your hands are tied by laws that are not in the best interest of the voter, that’s very frustrating and very difficult to work through emotionally.”

Lehman — who was fired from her position earlier this year after violating an IT policy while at home fighting cancer — shared her experiences and lessons learned from her time as an election commissioner on the podcast and in a separate interview with Kansas Reflector. She said time working in the position revealed much about the state of election law and perceptions in Kansas, exposing those twisting civic liberties for their benefit.

The fight between Democrats supporting access and Republicans backing security has been incredibly frustrating for Lehman. She said quarrels driven by self-interest often tie election officials’ hands and prevent them from ensuring elections are carried out in the best way possible.

“It does not matter which political party they are, they want to protect the interests of their own party,” Lehman said in the interview. “You see that when laws are being made, and we certainly see that very much when it comes to voting rights that political parties are very polarized as to where they fall on those.

Earlier this year, the Kansas Legislature passed a variety of election-related bills limiting who can deliver advanced ballots, finances for election offices and a new law that threatens prosecution for any activities mistaken as election official work.

In the past, Kansas officials such as Kobach have argued voter fraud is commonplace across the state, despite evidence and election audits reporting the contrary. His signature proof-of-citizenship law was rejected in court as unconstitutional after a trial in which Lehman testified.

Serving as election commissioner in the state’s second-largest county helped shape her current beliefs, Lehman said. For example, she highlighted her now-changed view on voting rights advocacy groups.

Where once she viewed these groups as the enemy, constantly snooping around and requesting audits, she came to learn that a strong relationship between election officials and advocates benefits fair and secure elections.

“I think a disservice that we do in Kansas and nationwide is there is a big disconnect between election officials and advocacy groups, and significant disconnect,” she said during the podcast. “Advocacy groups play a role in keeping us honest.”

In an Oct. 21 campaign email, Secretary of State Scott Schwab struck a different tone, touting a recent legal battle won against “liberal activist” groups. A Shawnee County judge ruled earlier this month that Schwab did not violate the state’s open records law by ordering the removal of an election database showing which provisional ballots were not counted.

The decision came in a lawsuit filed by Davis Hammet, president of the voting rights advocacy group Loud Light.

“As your Secretary of State, we have always been committed to defending your constitutional rights — especially your right to cast a private ballot,” Schwab said. “Unfortunately, organizations like the ACLU and the Democratic Party would rather spend time suing government agencies than actually defending your rights.”

Lehman’s term as Sedgwick County election commissioner expired in July after Schwab chose not to reappoint her because of a violation of election security protocol — accessing the election system from home. 

She had also been directed by medical professionals to stay home during the pandemic as the aggressive treatment for lymphoma would leave her immune system weakened and exposed. Lehman said she submitted multiple appeals to Schwab’s office requesting an exception to the policy preventing remote access but was repeatedly rejected or ignored. 

After being denied the exception repeatedly, Lehman chose to use a district VPN to access the voter registration system. She said she did so only after consulting with several IT professionals who assured her there would be no real risk.

Lehman told Kansas Reflector she knew she would likely be fired for knowingly violating this rule but did so because it was necessary to carry out her job.

Hammet said Lehman’s actions appear safe, but he would need details to know if they were clear of any concern. Hammet said Schwab and other officials should focus on the security of the voter registration database from other sources.

“The issue isn’t voter fraud. The issue is someone who can get in there and change data so that eligible voters won’t be able to vote, and one of the best ways to prevent that would be to have some sort of same-day voter registration,” Hammet said. “Unfortunately, the secretary of state and most Republican officials in Kansas have opposed this.” 

Elected officials promoting or denying beneficial policies for their personal benefit is not new, Hammet said, but becoming more prevalent. He pointed to shifting perceptions of mail-in voting. What was once seen as a useful tool for Republicans and Democrats alike has been vilified by the GOP.

“If everyone who’s eligible can access the ballot, then political parties have to shift their stances on policies to align more with everyday Kansans and Americans,” Hammet said. “Whenever (politicians) can manipulate the rules or draw the districts to advantage themselves, it’s really a f— you to the entire democratic system.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus 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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