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One school board race's results will come down to provisional ballots. What does that mean?

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A few seats on the USD 233 Board of Education and the Olathe City Council are up for grabs in the 2021 election cycle.

Headed into the final vote canvass, one race for the Olathe school board is still too close to call. Julie Steele currently leads Jennifer Gilmore by 63 votes in the Member 3 contest. Gilmore declared her victory on election night in a Facebook post that’s since been deleted. By last Wednesday evening, as mail-in votes were counted, Steele was leading and through Friday, her small advantage was expanding. 

The other school board races have wider margins headed into the canvass. For example, Brian Connell leads the race for the Member 6 seat by about 1,800 votes, and Robert Kuhn has an advantage of more than 2,552 votes in his bid for the Member 5 seat. 

Across Johnson County, fewer than 1,200 provisional ballots were cast for various reasons. Tuesday morning, the Johnson County Commission, sitting as the Board of Canvassers, voted unanimously to accept nearly 800 provisional ballots cast. An additional 203 will be partially counted. The remaining 187 ballots and the 92 mail-in ballots that arrived or were postmarked too late will not be counted. These decisions were made based on the recommendations of the elections commissioner Fred Sherman based in Kansas election law. 

PROVISIONAL BALLOT BRIEFER

Sherman described the provisional ballot casting process as “a safety net.” 

“That provides kind of an opportunity for us to do research and service the voters that aren't perfect voters,” he said. “The main thing we entrust to our election workers to service the voter, give them an opportunity to vote.” 

When provisional ballots are cast, they are put in a special envelope that seals them until the canvassing board determines their fate. One side of the envelope has the voter fill out what is essentially the voter registration application and the other is filled out by the poll worker. The envelope also contains information about the provisional balloting process and how their vote may or may not be ultimately counted. 

The decision on whether or not to count a provisional ballot occurs before the ballot is opened or scanned and made on statutory guidelines. Who or what a person voted for has no bearing on whether or not a provisional ballot is counted. 

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN FOR THIS ELECTION? 

Provisional ballots can be cast for any number of reasons on or before Election Day, but not every provisional ballot can be accepted. For example, 83 ballots have been rejected because the individuals who cast them did not have valid voter registration. Some ballots were cast in the election even if the voter’s registration could not be found, which could have been caused by a data entry problem or a name change. Nearly 440 ballots falling under that category were accepted. 

An additional 144 provisional ballots were cast by individuals who requested a mail-in ballot but never received it. Those types of provisional ballots are remedial and are counted only after it is determined the voter didn’t vote twice, Sherman said Tuesday. Also, 48 replacement ballots were issued and counted after the same threshold was met. 

As for the partial counting, that can occur if someone casts a ballot at the wrong polling place, is issued the wrong ballot on Election Day or if someone moved but did not submit a new voter registration form ahead of the deadline. In that case, only some of the ballot will be considered — that means their votes in jurisdictions beyond their precinct, district or ward would not be considered. Of the 203 ballots to be counted partially, 23 are the results of the voter going to their proper polling place but receiving the wrong ballot, which Sherman said is usually the result of “poll worker error.” Two ballots were cast by people who did not update their voter registration, and 178 ballots were cast at the wrong polling place. 

Not every provisional ballot can be counted under Kansas law. For example, one was rejected because the person who cast the original ballot died before Election Day. Two ballots were rejected because they arrived in the same envelope. Another wasn’t counted because the voter arrived after 7 p.m. on Election Day. Four ballots were not counted because people voted more than once. Just shy of 30 mail-in ballots were tossed because the signature on the envelope was not a match to the voter’s record. 

It’s not clear how many of these ballots that have been accepted fall in the Olathe Board of Education jurisdiction but these votes will determine the outcome of the race. 

STILL TO COME 

Ahead of the canvassers reconvening at 4 p.m. Tuesday, the ballots selected to be fully or partially counted will be opened, scanned and applied to the election results release so far. This afternoon, the outcomes will be presented to the board to certify the election. Once the results are considered by the Board of Canvassers only then will it be clear who the winner actually is, but until then, the results of the election aren’t official. 

Johnson County does not have automatic recounts if the margin between two candidates is small, but candidates can ask for a recount after the canvassers certify the election. 

Neither Steele or Gilmore have replied to multiple requests for comment. 

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