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Sedgwick County KS completes abortion rights amendment recount


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Mark Gietzen, president of the Kansas Republican Assembly, poses for a photo with then-Republican-nominee-hopeful Donald Trump at an event in Nashville, Tenn., on Aug. 29, 2015.

Courtesy of Mark Gietzen

A hand recount of votes in Sedgwick County confirmed a landslide victory for Kansas abortion rights on Sunday — but confusion surrounding a missed deadline has given fuel to election deniers who vow to keep challenging the results of the Aug. 2 election.

The hand recount in Sedgwick County verified that the Value Them Both amendment, which sought to remove abortion rights from the Kansas Constitution, failed by a wide margin in the state’s second largest county, as it did statewide.

The overall statewide vote tally changed by less than one-tenth of one percentage point with the recount.

But now, Mark Gietzen — a Wichita anti-abortion activist who is spreading unfounded conspiracy theories about voting fraud and helped bankroll the recount — said he plans to refuse to pay an estimated $31,800 for the Sedgwick County recount unless the ballots are counted for a third time. He said he will sue the Secretary of State on Monday, seeking a full hand recount of every race in the state in the August primary.

“In Sedgwick County, they need to do Value Them Both again, because that was totally screwed up,” Gietzen said Sunday after the canvass board certified the results.

Another recount would likely end with the same result. But Gietzen has indicated he’s looking for any opening to overturn the election.

Central to Gietzen’s newest complaint is whether the Sedgwick County Election Office violated state open meetings law when it delayed its recount canvass and continued working on its recount Saturday without notifying the public of the time, place and date of the recount activities.

Sedgwick County Election Commission Angela Caudillo said no observers were barred from watching the recount, which was at the same location each day.

“We never ended our process,” Caudillo said. “Our doors were open every day. I know that news media was there as late as 6 or 7 on Friday while we were still working. And our doors were open, people came in, we had observers.”

But two public statements issued by Sedgwick County after election workers finished counting failed to mention work was continuing at the Sedgwick County Extension Office on Saturday. Instead, they mentioned board of canvass meetings at the Historic Courthouse in downtown Wichita.

Gietzen said observers were unable to watch the recount on Saturday because they didn’t know ballots were still being counted or where the process was playing out.

“They sent the observers home Friday about noon,” Gietzen said in an interview. “And then the election commissioner, who has a vested interest in trying to make it work, make the numbers match, admitted that they weren’t matching, the numbers were bad, and then somehow we fixed it, only to find out Saturday that they were in there working Saturday without notifying the observers.

“I’m not going to pay for that,” Gietzen said. “That is an absolute no-no.”

The Kansas recount was requested earlier this month by Melissa Leavitt, a Colby election denier, and financed in part by Gietzen, leader of the Kansas Coalition for Life and Kansas Republican Assembly.

They did not raise enough money for a full statewide recount but scraped together enough — $120,000 — to pay for a recount in nine out of 105 counties, including some of the state’s largest.

The proposed Value Them Both amendment failed 58% to 42% in Sedgwick County and 59% to 41% statewide.

In Sedgwick County, more than 140 election workers counted from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday and then until lunchtime on Friday to meet deadline.

“Although our board did a great job of counting, in one category they failed to separate the votes into the correct precinct batches,” Caudillo said. “So we needed to go back and start proofing those, and that’s what happened on Saturday.”

Election workers finished counting ballots early Friday around noon, and election workers began manually entering handwritten results into a computer spreadsheet. Caudillo said while she was proofreading the data entered into the spreadsheet Friday night, she discovered approximately 400 ballots that had not been assigned precincts during the recount, prompting a labor intensive process of tracking down those ballots and categorizing them appropriately.

Sedgwick County verified its results around 4:30 p.m. Sunday. The county missed the Saturday deadline, requesting an extension to review an apparent anomaly in the data — approximately 400 ballots had not been categorized by precinct. It was the last county to verify its recount.

Ballots were recounted in four of the state’s most densely populated counties — Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee and Douglas, which all rejected the ballot by a wide margin — and four smaller counties where the amendment failed. Those counties were Crawford, Harvey, Jefferson and Lyon. They also ordered a recount in Thomas County, where voters favored the amendment.

The recount did not change the outcome in any of the nine counties.

Communication problems

A heated exchange during the recount canvass on Sunday exemplified the chaotic and politically fraught intersection of abortion politics and false election conspiracies driving the recount effort.

It started with a county commissioner accusing the election commissioner of fueling distrust in elections, escalated to grievances about funding, moved on to one commissioner telling another to watch his tone and ended with commissioners unanimously approving a recount of a landslide victory for abortion rights.

The amendment was rejected in Sedgwick County 85,885-61,843, a more than 24,042-vote win for abortion rights, according to the official recount results verified Sunday. The recount found 19 additional votes for the amendment and 38 fewer against it, with 86 fewer ballots than the original count in Sedgwick County.

But confusion that started late Friday night, if Gietzen gets his way, could require an additional recount. Commission Chairman David Dennis, a Republican member of the Board of County Canvassers, said he believes the election results were accurate but shared in Gietzen’s displeasure with the lack of communication about recount activities on Saturday.

During the canvass, Dennis berated Caudillo for not putting out any public notifications or news releases to explain what was happening Saturday during the delay.

“I expected your office to put out regular communications through our communications department to let the public know what’s going on, because we have to make sure that this election is open, transparent, fair and accurate,” Dennis said.

That didn’t happen, Dennis said.

At 2:43 p.m. Friday, Sedgwick County Strategic Communications posted a news release saying the canvassing board would meet at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Historic Courthouse downtown to certify the results, an indication that the recount was drawing to a close.

All that was left was data entry of handwritten results into a computer spreadsheet and then proofreading the data entered into the spreadsheet for any anomalies.

At 11:24 p.m. that night, Sedgwick County posted a two-sentence news release announcing something had gone wrong.

“The Sedgwick County Recount Canvass originally scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022, has been postponed,” it said. “Additional time is needed and more information will be forthcoming on rescheduling.”

No additional information was provided until 6:53 p.m. Saturday, after additional work on the recount had been completed without any new notification. The Saturday evening news release announced the canvass board would meet at 4 p.m. Sunday at the Historic Courthouse. It did not provide any more details on the cause for delay, which wasn’t revealed until Sunday’s canvass.

“I apologize,” Caudillo told Dennis, who had expressed concerns about observers not knowing the recount was ongoing Saturday. “I did not do anything proactive to notify them.”

“Well, I know you didn’t do anything proactive because I only asked you at least two or three times to be proactive and you didn’t do it,” Dennis said.

Commissioner Lacey Cruse, also on the canvassing board, tried to defuse the situation: “I wonder if this could be a discussion that we could have after—”

“No,” Dennis interrupted. “This is an open meeting today to discuss the election and what we’re doing is we’re playing right into the hands of the people that say this is not an accurate election.”

“Well, maybe we could change our tone in how we do it,” Cruse said.

In response, Caudillo pointed to a lack of resources in the Sedgwick County Election Office to both conduct a recount and handle public relations.

“Quite frankly, I don’t have the resources in my office to do the job that I need to do. … I don’t currently have the staffing table I need to do all of the work that I have to do along with the job that I have to do,” she said.

The Election Office — which technically reports to the Kansas Secretary of State but is funded by Sedgwick County — does not have its own spokesperson and relies on Sedgwick County Strategic Communications, which reports to the county manager, to write and send news releases.

“I dedicated my time to trying to look at the things I needed to look at to make sure we could get this accomplished,” Caudillo said. “And unfortunately, we were not able to meet our deadline.”

Dennis was not satisfied with Caudillo’s answer.

“There are a large number of people that don’t believe our elections are fair and accurate,” he said. “We have to make sure that we do everything we can to dispel that myth. I truly believe they are; I’m not saying that they’re not. I believe that we’re doing the right thing. It’s just that we have to make sure that we do our part to keep the public informed, and we’re not doing that.”

“I apologize, Mr. Chairman. I’ll do better,” Caudillo said. “Since observers showed up, I assumed they knew.”

This story was originally published August 21, 2022 9:02 PM.

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Chance Swaim covers investigations for The Wichita Eagle. His work has been recognized with national and local awards, including a George Polk Award for political reporting, a Betty Gage Holland Award for investigative reporting and a Victor Murdock Award for journalistic excellence. Most recently, he was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. You may contact him at cswaim@wichitaeagle.com or follow him on Twitter @byChanceSwaim.





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