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Kansas GOP primary for governor turns nasty as Kobach's lead dwindles

Kansas GOP primary for governor turns nasty as Kobach's lead dwindles
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach speaks to reporters Wednesday in Topeka. On Thursday, his lead shrunk from 191 votes to 121 out of 311,000 ballots cast. (Thad Allton / Topeka Capital-Journal)

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer demanded Thursday that Secretary of State Kris Kobach stop advising county elections officials while their battle for the Republican gubernatorial nomination hangs in the balance, accusing him of giving them information "inconsistent with Kansas law."

The close contest between the embattled governor and a conservative lightning rod took an acrimonious turn as Kobach's lead shrunk from 191 votes to 121 out of 311,000 ballots cast, after two counties reported discrepancies in their initial tallies.

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The counting is not complete because state law says mail-in ballots that are postmarked Tuesday can be accepted by the counties as late as Friday. And county officials still must review perhaps several thousand provisional ballots, given to voters at the polls when their eligibility is in question. Officials have until Aug. 20 to finish.

Colyer released a letter after his campaign announced that it had set up a "voting integrity" hotline and urged people to report their complaints about the election. Colyer spokesman Kendall Marr said it had received "countless" reports, saying he personally knows of several dozen.

"It has come to my attention that your office is giving advice to county election officials — as recently as a conference call yesterday — and you are making public statements on national television which are inconsistent with Kansas law and may serve to suppress the vote in the ongoing primary election process," Colyer said in his letter to Kobach.

As secretary of state, Kobach is the state's top election official, setting rules, giving county officials guidance and appointing election commissioners in Kansas’ four most populous counties.

Kobach spokeswoman Danedri Herbert said the secretary of state would respond to Colyer's letter Friday.

Kobach, a vocal advocate of tough immigration and voter identification policies that critics say are discriminatory, advised Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and the Trump White House and served as vice chairman of the president’s now-disbanded commission on election fraud. Trump endorsed Kobach on Twitter on Monday, less than 24 hours before polls opened.

Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer demanded that Kobach stop advising county election officials until their primary election result is determined.
Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer demanded that Kobach stop advising county election officials until their primary election result is determined. (Travis Heying / Wichita Eagle)

Kobach's no-apology, hard-right conservatism has alienated even some fellow Republicans, and Colyer has sought to project a more mild-mannered, steadier style.

Kobach told reporters Wednesday that he knew of no significant reports of irregularities in Tuesday's primaries outside of long delays in reporting results from Johnson County in the Kansas City area, the state's most populous county. Results there were delayed by problems with uploading data from new voting machines.

But the totals for the GOP primary for governor in two western counties posted on the secretary of state's website did not match the totals from the counties themselves.

In Thomas County in the state's northwest corner, the final unofficial results posted on the secretary of state's website show Kobach winning there with 466 votes to Colyer's 422. But the tally posted by the Thomas County clerk's office shows Colyer with 522 votes, or 100 votes more, a number the clerk confirmed to the Associated Press on Thursday.

Bryan Caskey, state elections director, said county officials pointed out the discrepancy Thursday following a routine request for a postelection check of the numbers to counties by the secretary of state's office.

"This is a routine part of the process," Caskey said. "This is why we emphasize that election-night results are unofficial."

Thomas County Clerk Shelly Harms said it's possible that her handwriting on the tally sheet faxed to the secretary of state's office was bad enough in the rush of primary-night business that the number for Colyer wasn't clear. A copy she provided to AP suggested that explanation was generous — the number for Colyer is unambiguously "522."

"They just misread it," she told AP.

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And in Haskell County, elections officials said they had not initially reported returns from one precinct. Once those votes were added, the net result was a gain of 30 votes for Kobach.

5:40 p.m. This article was updated with Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer’s demand that Secretary of State Kris Kobach stop advising county elections officials.

This article was originally published at 12:55 p.m.

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