This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving the KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.
These stations will carry live coverage of primary election results Tuesday night.
Kansas doesn’t have a reputation for corruption like Chicago, where political bosses stuffed ballot boxes and sometimes raised the dead to alter the outcome of elections, or like Florida, home of the infamous hanging chad from Bush v. Gore.
But concerns about tampering appear to be on the rise, at least among Kansas Democrats, because of unusual voting patterns in the 2014 elections and persistent reports about the vulnerability of electronic voting machines.
“Apparently, they (voting machines) are not that hard to hack,” said Beth Clarkson, a Wichita State University statistician who believes the machines may have been used to alter results in some large Kansas precincts in 2014.
Clarkson, who is appealing a recent district court ruling denying her access to Sedgwick County voting records, bases her concerns on Kansas voting patterns that resemble those linked to possible fraud in several Republican presidential primary contests across the country in 2012.
Two California researchers uncovered the patterns in the presidential primary states. When Clarkson saw their report, she downloaded their data and re-tested their methods.
“I took a look at the data and I took a look at their analysis and I got the same results they did,” she said.
“Apparently, they (voting machines) are not that hard to hack.”- Beth Clarkson, a Wichita State University statistician
Convinced their methods were sound, Clarkson applied them to the 2014 U.S. Senate race in Kansas won by Pat Roberts over challenger Greg Orman. The results confirmed the same unusual voting patterns — late surges of partisan votes in large precincts that could have been generated by rigging electronic voting machines.
“Statistics never tell you what the cause is,” Clarkson said, only that there is a relationship between the numbers and certain explanations. But based on her preliminary findings, she said the 2014 voting patterns are “possibly indicative of fraud.”
Clarkson’s findings re-ignited speculation about how Republican Gov. Sam Brownback eked out a win over Paul Davis on that same night. So, as this year’s elections approached, Democrats in particular began urging supporters to use paper ballots when possible.
“It’s much easier to tamper with those electronic machines, and we suspect that there has been some of that going on,” Sen. Laura Kelly, a Topeka Democrat, said at a recent candidate forum. “So, I think if people want their vote to count, they ought to use paper.”
Confidence in machines
Miami County Clerk Janet White said concerns about electronic voting machines are overblown. She has confidence in the aging but well-maintained machines used at the county’s 13 polling places because of the security measures she has put in place.
“None of these machines are hooked to the internet, so they’re really not hackable,” White said, motioning to a group of machines set up for a poll-worker training class.
The machines and the cards used to activate and record the votes cast on them are closely monitored before, during and after each election.
“So, we really have got some safety measures in place,” she said. “Without knocking somebody over the head, I really don’t think you’re going to be able to mess with our elections.”
Renee Pfaltzgraff, of Paola, is among the volunteers that White is training to work the polls. She said she’s not concerned about the security of her vote.
“I’ve used them (the machines) for several years, and the ballots are very simple to navigate through,” Pflaltzgraff said. “You have an opportunity to change an answer if you want to change it. So, I’ve never had any issues with the machines.”
But some Kansas voters do have issues with the machines. When Topeka resident Vern McFalls read about Clarkson’s findings, his thoughts immediately went back to his experiences as a poll worker on the night of the 2014 general election.
“Something definitely went awry that night,” McFalls said, explaining that some of the voting machines at his polling place seemed to be “acting up” hours after the polls closed.
“Maybe I’m wrong, but just my gut feeling tells me something wasn’t right,” he said. “If it were left up to me, I’d never go near another electronic voting machine again. I mean, it’s just too easy (to manipulate them). It’s just too easy.”
Producing a paper trail
Organizations that monitor elections also continue to have issues with the machines, particularly models that don’t generate paper trails. The use of electronic voting machines by states, like Kansas, that don’t require post-election audits also are a concern to organizations like the Verified Voting Foundation and the Common Cause Education Fund, which in a 2012 report listed Kansas among the states least prepared to catch and address voting problems.
Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew refuses to criticize colleagues that continue to use electronic voting systems. But he prefers paper ballots.
“As an election official, I like the security of having that paper-based system,” Shew said. “Regardless of what happens, I have a ballot I can hand a voter, they can vote and if need be I can hand-count it if none of the (scanning) equipment works.”
He said the county’s system makes it easier for him to audit results if necessary.
“There just is a confidence in having that paper ballot, not only for the voter but for the person administering elections and for the poll workers,” Shew said. “It provides us with the ability to audit throughout the whole process.”
Voters who have concerns can request paper ballots even in counties that use electronic systems, Shew said. But supplies of paper ballots are usually limited in those counties. So, those wanting one might want to call ahead to their county election office before showing up at the polls.