Op-Ed: Unmonitored drop boxes, other questions continue to cloud election integrity – even in Johnson County, Kansas

Most of the media want you to believe that lingering questions about election integrity are the stuff of lies, kooks and fringe conspiracy theories.

As ESPN’s Lee Corso likes to say: Not so fast, my friend.

Fringe? Consider just the facts: Somewhere between 33% and 40% of all Americans, depending on the poll, still don’t believe Biden’s election was legitimate. In one poll, more than 70% of Republicans question it. If that’s fringe, it’s an awful lot of it.

Kooks? I can’t vouch for someone I’ve never met or talked with, but I’ve spoken with conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza and he seems pretty darn rational to me. And we’ll see if he has the goods in his upcoming film and book “2000 Mules,” in which he purports to have actual surveillance footage of rampant ballot harvesting in the 2020 election.

Just one of the 2,000 “mules” D’Souza says his team traced via cell phone geo-tracking allegedly made 53 different trips to 20 drop boxes. Some alleged mules took cell phone selfies, apparently to get paid for dropping off the ballots, D’Souza claims in his movie trailer. He calls it all “a coordinated ring of illegal vote harvesting in all the key states where the election was decided.”

Kansas wasn’t one of them. And at this point I’ve seen no evidence of fraud. But some even in Johnson County are calling attention to what they feel are lax if not negligent procedures – particularly with drop boxes – that could be exploited by the unscrupulous.

I’ve interviewed two of the concerned citizens raising the questions. And again, I can tell you with certainty – without vouching for their claims – that they’re the furthest thing from crackpots. They’re actually quite intelligent, well-employed and well-spoken.

Their concerns have been dismissed out of hand by the media – of course! – yet also largely by election officials and even some legislators.

Among their various concerns, the most troubling is the alleged lack of security at outdoor ballot drop boxes – which Johnson County has dabbled in since 2018, but which exploded across the county and state in 2020 due to the pandemic. Johnson County offered eight boxes in the election – six at libraries and two at election offices.

Thad Snider, one of the concerned citizens investigating all this, said although the boxes were surveilled by cameras 24/7, he was denied access to the footage by the county due to supposed, but unspecified, security concerns over releasing it. And he’s been told that the surveillance video at the libraries has been automatically recorded over anyway.

I don’t know if Snider and others are on to anything or not, but I’m at least willing to listen. The whole drop box thing should concern everyone, particularly if the boxes aren’t being watched closely. 

And frankly, I wasn’t overwhelmed with the answers I got from the county when I inquired about it myself.

When I asked if anyone actually viewed the surveillance video of the drop boxes, county Election Commissioner Fred Sherman responded, “So, we have 24/7 camera coverage on all of our drop boxes, yes.”

In case you didn’t notice, that wasn’t my question. So I asked again: Did anyone actually look at the footage? “I can’t get into those details,” he said. I asked why not. “Well, it’s 24-hour camera coverage on the drop boxes,” came the answer. Huh?

I asked a third time: Did anyone ever watch the surveillance video? “For what purpose?” asked Sherman. Well, I asked, why have the cameras in the first place? “In case there is any kind of incident or criminal activity,” he said. Bingo.

When it comes down to it, apparently the surveillance video was to be viewed only if an alert citizen saw something and reported it to law enforcement.

Snider also wonders why ballot transfer forms – official papers showing the transfers of ballots from the drop boxes – weren’t all signed by someone of each political party as promised beforehand. Sherman says the signatures weren’t required.

“Well, it is a big deal,” Snider says of the forms and their lack of signatures. “Chain of custody is evidence integrity. If you don’t have that, then you can’t count those [ballots].” Snider says his research alone has indicated “almost 7,000 ballots from the 2021 General Election in Johnson County without a proper chain of custody.”

Snider noted that KCTV-5 reported at one point in the 2020 election, “Voters find broken, overflowing ballot box in Johnson County.”

“So, how are these drop boxes secure?” he asks.

Snider, who has put together a slide presentation on his concerns – and who says more questions are coming – also questions voter registration numbers. He says a highly suspicious percentage of eligible voters in Johnson County are registered.

Sherman says the number of “eligible” voters is too much of a moving target to track, and is only identifiable in the Census every decade. Snider counters that he used updated Census estimates contemporaneous with the election.

I don’t know who’s right. But I do think conservatives should give other conservatives a fair hearing – they sure don’t get one from the other side – especially amid national concerns about election integrity. Rather than try to make these concerns go away, our leaders should do their best to allay them.

Kansas Senate Bill 445 would prohibit the use of outdoor ballot boxes. Given the experience in Johnson County, a lot of folks would like to “ban the box,” as the expression goes.

Lawmakers may find D’Souza’s drop box investigation compelling once its results are released this spring. And there are a number of other investigations going on nationwide, despite the drumbeat to move on from all the questions. One of those investigations, in fact, is by the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.

Stewart Whitson, a visiting fellow at Opportunity Solutions Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group advocating for policies that make it easy to vote but hard to cheat, testified in support of SB 445.

“Ballot harvesters who prey on vulnerable Kansas voters, including the elderly and people with disabilities, can use unsecured drop boxes to help facilitate their efforts,” Whitson told lawmakers. He noted reports of missing ballots and vandalized drop boxes across the country, including fires that destroyed boxes in Boston and Los Angeles.

What good is surveillance video that isn’t surveilled?

“In Pennsylvania this past fall,” Whitson testified, “a county commissioner called for an investigation after surveillance footage captured a man stuffing multiple ballots into a drop box. The act was caught by surveillance cameras but only came to light after the commissioner obtained the footage through a right-to-know request, and then personally reviewed it himself after the sheriff’s office acknowledged they did not have the manpower to review the video themselves.”

These questions and the people posing them aren’t kooky. It’s time we stopped deriding those we disagree with that way. The problem, instead, is that the election system, in order to accommodate the pandemic in 2020, appears to have created too many loose ends. And, of course, efforts to verify voters have been fought tooth and nail by Democrats and their organizations for years.

People need to be, and should be, reassured – with facts, not condescending pats on the head – that the electoral system will be more undeniably secure in 2022 and beyond.

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