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story.lead_photo.caption Johnson County chief council Don Jarrett speaks during the Johnson County Board of Canvassers meeting, Monday, Aug. 13, 2018, in Olathe, Kan. County election officials across Kansas on Monday began deciding which provisional ballots from last week's primary election will count toward the final official vote totals, with possibility that they could create a new leader in the hotly contested Republican race for governor. Secretary of State Kris Kobach led Gov. Jeff Colyer by a mere 110 votes out of more than 313,000 cast as of Friday evening. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

WICHITA, Kan. -- Kansas election officials on Monday began reviewing about 9,000 provisional ballots as the two candidates in the state's tight GOP primary for governor prepared for a long legal fight.

As of late Monday, Secretary of State Kris Kobach led Gov. Jeff Colyer by 206 votes out of more than 313,000 cast. But 43 counties -- including the state's two most-populous -- have yet to report final results from the Aug. 7 election.

The canvass meetings began early Monday in suburban Kansas City's Johnson County, where a board was set to review 1,800 provisional ballots, which are given at the polls to voters when their eligibility is in question. Seventy-six counties were to start canvassing Monday. Some will meet later this week and next.

It was unclear how many of the provisional ballots were from the GOP race. Based on past elections, Kobach said, it's likely that about two-thirds of them were cast in the Republican primary.

The candidates in the disputed race are challenging each other's legal interpretations, sending observers to monitor the vote count and raising the idea of lawsuits.

A new fight was brewing on how to count unaffiliated voters who were simply given provisional ballots by poll workers without first having them fill out party-affiliation statements. It was unclear how many ballots fell into that category.

A legal opinion Monday by the governor's top attorney took issue with the guidance issued by the person Kobach appointed to oversee the vote count after he recused himself.

Assistant Secretary of State Eric Rucker told county election officials Sunday that if an unaffiliated voter did not first complete a declaration of party affiliation, then that voter was not entitled to cast a ballot. The opinion from the governor's office said provisional ballots cast by unaffiliated voters in a primary should be construed as evidence of voter intent and must be counted.

Counties have until next Monday to finish the review of ballots.

With such a slim margin separating the candidates, the canvass meetings will be closely watched. Colyer's campaign on Friday announced plans to have representatives in all 105 counties when provisional ballots are reviewed.

"We're following the same procedure that we always do. It just seems to be a bit more intense; the stakes seem to be a bit higher," said Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt is already considering the possibility that one of the candidates will file a lawsuit challenging the election results. He sent a letter to county election officials reminding them to preserve "any paper files, notes or electronic data related in any way" to the election.

Colyer has questioned whether Kobach, the state's top election official, was advising counties not to count some mail-in ballots, including those with missing or unreadable postmarks, even if they arrived by Friday.

In a letter Thursday to Kobach, Colyer wrote that circumstances "obviously increase the likelihood that one of the candidates may seek a recount, or even the possibility of litigation."

Kobach rejected Colyer's criticism of the secretary of state's actions.

"As governor of Kansas, your unrestrained rhetoric has the potential to undermine the public's confidence in the election process," Kobach wrote.

On Friday, Kobach stepped aside from his duties until the primary's outcome is resolved, but Colyer argued that Kobach still has a conflict of interest because Rucker, his top deputy, is taking over the secretary of state's responsibilities.

The secretary of state's role in the actual counting of ballots is limited. His office provides guidance, compiles statewide vote tallies and provides general supervision.

Information for this article was contributed by Margaret Stafford and Summer Ballentine of The Associated Press.

A Section on 08/14/2018

Print Headline: Kansas shifts to set-aside vote

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