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Report: Understaffing contributed to election woes

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Understaffing and lack of employee training at the Sedgwick County election office led to final vote counts once again being delayed for hours after polls closed, a task force said Monday.

In a six-page report, the task force comprised of staff members from the Kansas Secretary of State's office found that the Sedgwick County election commissioner's office has the fewest number of full-time staff among the state's four largest counties, even though Sedgwick County has the second-highest number of registered voters in the state.

Vote totals in both the Aug. 6 primary and Nov. 6 general elections were never incorrectly reported and no laws or policies were broken, the group said in its report, released Monday.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach had sent staff members to Wichita to investigate complaints that final results from the county were unavailable until hours after both elections. The first posted results in both elections also indicated they were complete with all precincts reporting, when, in fact, the posted results showed only advance vote totals from some precincts.

The task force, though, found the tabulation of votes was accurate, and that the reporting problems were not the fault of the election office's software or hardware but caused by "preventable human mistake."

The task force gave the county eight recommendations for improvement,

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman called it "a fair report," and said she had accepted all of its recommendations. Her office has already begun working on some, such additional staff training. She said she would work with the county commission and secretary of state's office to resolve the problems.

"It was very helpful and it will definitely help us in addressing issues," Lehman said Monday.

Kobach did not immediately respond to messages left on his cellphones, but in the Monday news release announcing the findings, he is quoted as saying the task force did "a great job" in identifying problem areas and solutions.

"We are confident that Election Commissioner Lehman will be able to implement these reforms and we look forward to successful elections in spring 2013," Kobach said.

His office will monitor the county's progress through the 2013 spring elections, and will reassess the performance of Lehman's office in May.

Among the recommendations is that Lehman work with the county commission to "appropriately staff" the elections office and to obtain on-site election day support with the election software vendor for at least the next two years. The group also recommended additional training on the software for employees, more pre-election testing and better communications with the media and public.

Their report noted that Sedgwick County's election office has just three full-time and six part-time employees, compared to Johnson County's 15 full-time and four part-time employees. Even smaller counties, such as Shawnee and Wyandotte, have more full-time election office employees.

In addition, the task force also suggested Lehman consider increasing the number of polling places. Sedgwick County now operates with fewer than one-third of the polling places it had 10 years ago.

"A reduction in polling places was reasonable in light of tight budgets and an aggressive and successful advance voting program, which reduced the demand for election-day voting services," the report said. "However, the number of polling places may have been reduced too far."

This can result in longer voting lines, greater travel distances and possible delays in delivering results to the election office, the report said.

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