On Thursday, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach reappointed Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker to a full four-year term.
The announcement was expected. Metsker is a former chairman of the Johnson County Republican Party, and Kobach is a Republican.
But Kobach’s decision is yet another illustration of the fact that Kansas election laws are a tangled mess. Voters deserve to have the utmost confidence in how votes are cast and counted, yet the Kansas system shows clear potential for conflicts of interest.
In early August, Kobach won the Republican nomination for governor in one of the closest elections in memory. There was a long delay in reporting the results, which Metsker supervised.
The Star editorial board has learned that as the votes were being counted, Metsker spoke directly with Kobach. Pursuant to an open records request, The Star obtained Metsker’s text messages after the polls closed.
“I have spoken with Kris twice and he seemed satisfied we were (doing) the best we could,” Metsker wrote in a text time-stamped at 3:50 a.m. The recipient appears to be Bryan Caskey, an employee in Kobach’s office.
It isn’t known what Metsker and Kobach discussed during the phone calls. Neither office responded to emailed requests for comment or explanation.
But the conversations are huge red flags. Kobach was a candidate in an extremely close GOP primary that saw Gov. Jeff Colyer lose by the narrowest of margins. The result almost certainly hinged on the Johnson County returns, which were significantly delayed. Any contact between a candidate and the election commissioner in that circumstance is inappropriate.
Additionally — and crucially — Metsker’s job rested in Kobach’s hands that night. Both men knew the deadline for a new appointment was just a few weeks away. The appearance of a conflict for both men is clear.
The texts provide no evidence that Metsker talked with any other candidate. He spoke with a representative of Colyer, the texts show, but apparently not the governor directly.
Kobach will likely claim he made the calls as the secretary of state. While Kansans should be uncomfortable with a candidate being in charge of his or her own election, this isn’t a unique arrangement. It happens in other states.
But two calls on election night, as the vote count is delayed, are a cause for concern. At that point, Metsker’s conversations should not include any of the candidates.
And Kansans should be outraged that Kobach plays any role in Metsker’s employment. The potential connection between his job, Election Day problems, and a close contest can only add to voters’ cynicism about the election process.
That cynicism will be reinforced with Metsker’s reappointment Thursday.
There is no legitimate reason the secretary of state should pick the election commissioner in the state’s four biggest counties. It turns election supervision into a partisan patronage job. And it inevitably leads to suspicion that one candidate, if he or she is the secretary of state, has unique access when the votes are counted.
Kansas lawmakers should make election reform a top priority next session. Letting local governments control their own elections is a good place to start.