As polls open Tuesday for the 2020 general election, a significant number of voters are already done, having used advance voting and mail ballots to cast their votes.


"It is big numbers," said Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho.


In Harvey County, more than 7,500 voters turned to mail ballots, with 5,880 mail ballots returned to the county clerk’s office by Monday morning. Mail ballots returned to drop boxes by 7 p.m. Tuesday will be counted. Ballots postmarked by 7 p.m. Tuesday and received by Friday will be counted as well.


In addition, 3,443 voters had made use of an early voting station at the courthouse as of noon Saturday. The polling station was open for about four hours on Monday as well.


More than 500,000 Kansas voters requested an advance mail ballot in 2020, according to figures from the Secretary of State’s Office, with more than half of those ballots already returned to election officials.


For comparison, 376,000 mail ballots were sent in the 2018 and 2016 elections combined. And a lower percentage of voters had returned their ballot at this point in 2016, even accounting for the increase in advance voting.


Changing times


Voting at the polls, and voting in elections in general, has undergone minor changes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Voters can still head to the polls and darken ovals on ballots or vote electronically — though there are safety measures in place.


If a voter is under quarantine in the past few days, there is still an opportunity to vote. According to Piepho, there is a process for "the sick or disabled" to cast a ballot — a call to the county clerk’s office, and someone to help shuffle a request form and ballot between the courthouse and clerk’s office can get a vote registered using a similar process to vote by mail.


"If you are sick, we really do not want you at the polls," Piepho said. "I would really hate for our polling places be a cluster."


For those headed to the polls, there are some minor changes to deal with safety and COVID-19. County clerks’ offices got a trial run with the primary election in August.


"I have not heard any complaints," said Butler County Clerk Tatum Stafford.


Those who head to the polls will see subtle changes to polling stations designed for the safety of poll workers and voters, such as plastic barriers between voters and poll workers.


In Harvey County, voters will be issued a pen/stylus they can keep in addition to the traditional "I voted" sticker.


"I do not believe voters will experience something drastically different at the polls," Piepho said. "We have sanitizers for poll workers and equipment. We are trying to reduce the touchpoints."


Poll workers in Harvey County will be wearing masks, and voters will be asked to wear a mask when they enter the polling station.


Voters can’t be required to wear a mask, according to Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab.


"Article 5, Section 1 of the Kansas Constitution states there are three criteria to be qualified to vote in Kansas: age, citizenship, and residence. If an individual is a properly registered voter, state law requires that they be allowed to cast a ballot," Schwab said. "No individual, who is otherwise qualified to vote, shall be turned away from a polling location in Kansas for wearing, or not wearing, a mask. Anyone who attempts to intimidate or prevent a voter from voting based on their use or non-use of a face mask is subject to litigation."


In Butler County, voters will be asked to wear a rubber glove, provided to them by poll workers, if they are voting electronically.


"That is less cleaning to do on my machines," Tatum said. "It is to protect our new touchscreens."


Voters also will be asked to observe social distancing guidelines while in line to vote, checking in and voting.


"The Office of Secretary of State encourages all Kansans to be safe and follow the recommended safety protocols of health professionals. We ask that Kansans observe social distancing protocols while at polling locations," Schwab said.


Record-setting election


A "record-setting" number of Kansans are expected to case their ballot in next week’s election, with the Secretary of State’s Office projecting on Thursday that 70% of all registered voters will cast ballots.


If the state’s prediction comes to pass, a higher number of people will vote than in the 2016 general election, which saw 67% of Kansans head to the polls.


Elections Director Bryan Caskey said the office was also encouraged by the Aug. 3 primary, which he said had 100,000 more voters turn out than in any previous primary.


"We anticipate that will continue through to the general election," he said.


In Harvey County, Piepho is calling for higher numbers as well.


"I think we will see probably 75%," Piepho said.


The already returned mail and advance voting accounts for nearly 40% turnout.


As of Thursday morning, over 567,000 Kansans had already cast their ballots, representing roughly a quarter of all registered voters. That has stemmed from voters mailing in or dropping off ballots early due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


And with 150,000 advance mail ballots still outstanding, it is likely that number will continue to grow.


In addition, 1.94 million Kansans are registered to vote – 100,000 more than there were in the 2018 midterm elections.


Schwab said that he wouldn’t be surprised if turnout was actually higher than his office is initially projecting.


"We try to be a little bit more conservative in these things," he said. "We don’t want to cause panic that it will be super, super high or make people think it will be super, super low."


Still, Schwab said Kansans shouldn’t expect long lines at the polls, even as other states, ranging from Georgia to New York, have seen hour-plus wait times.


Social distancing might make the wait seem longer than it actually is, he cautioned.


"It shouldn’t take an hour to vote, it shouldn’t take a half hour to vote," he said. "It should take 15, maybe 20 minutes at the most."


And while some states, including the swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, are fearing that it will take days to count ballots, Schwab predicted that wouldn’t be the case in Kansas.


Counties are able to open, handle and process advance ballots, with the data stored until it can be tabulated on election night.


In Harvey County, that process had begun on Monday.


— Topeka Capital-Journal staff writer Andrew Bahl contributed to this report.