Largest Kansas counties will recount abortion vote after far-right activists raise money

·6 min read

A partial recount of Kansas’ abortion rights vote will proceed after frantic fundraising to pay for a hand count of every ballot in the state fell short of the $230,000 needed.

The nine counties where recounts will take place is far short of the sweeping statewide recount envisioned by diehard supporters of the Value Them Both amendment, which would have stripped abortion rights from the Kansas Constitution.

Proponents of a recount ultimately raised roughly $120,000, allowing them to pay for recounts in just a fraction of Kansas’ 105 counties. Still, the recount will include several of the state’s biggest counties —Johnson, Sedgwick, Douglas and Shawnee. The other counties are Crawford, Harvey, Jefferson, Lyon and Thomas.

The recount is ultimately expected to encompass about 59% of ballots cast in the election. Eight of the nine recounted counties had a majority of residents vote “no.”

Most of the cost will be charged to a credit card provided by Mark Gietzen, a long-time anti-abortion activist in Wichita who leads the hard-right Kansas Republican Assembly, the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office said.

The amendment went down in a landslide defeat in the Aug. 2 election. The 59% to 41% victory for amendment opponents reverberated nationally in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision striking down Roe v. Wade. The abortion rights side won the statewide referendum by more than 165,000 votes.

Gietzen, a far-right activist who has suggested without evidence that fraud occurred in the election, said in an interview he helped cobble together $121,430.23 into the Kansas Republican Assembly account, including money from an online fundraiser. He said he authorized Melissa Leavitt, a Colby resident who requested the recount, to spend “every dime” on it.

Some of the money came from private donations, maxed-out credit cards and Gietzen’s Boeing retirement fund.

“The recount is step number one,” Gietzen said. “After that, we’re going to do a sampling to find out whether people listed as voting actually voted or if there was some kind of hanky panky going on.”

The recounts will keep the rejected abortion amendment in the public eye as Republicans try to turn their attention to the general election. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, the Republican nominee for governor, faces incumbent Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in what is expected to be an extremely competitive race.

“This all fits into a pattern, if you will, of raising money from the faithful to joust at windmills,” said state Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who supports abortion rights but has been familiar with Gietzen since at least the early 1990s.

Carmichael said Gietzen has spent years raising money on the fringes of Kansas’ anti-abortion movements. His efforts, Carmichael said, “made little if any sense and never resulted in any substantive progress for the pro-life movement.”

A waste of money?

Even some Republicans were dismayed by the decision. John Whitmer, a former state representative from Wichita who now hosts a conservative talk radio show, on Twitter called the recount a “COMPLETE WASTE of time and $$$!”

In Johnson County, the recount is estimated to cost $74,500. An estimate of $31,800 was provided for Sedgwick County.

Earlier on Monday, Johnson County Election Commission Fred Sherman said if a recount occurs, all ballots would be counted precinct by precinct. A bipartisan team of two — a Republican and Democrat — would sort the ballots into “yes” and “no” piles, with additional piles in cases where a ballot was marked more than once or not marked at all, Sherman said.

Each person on the team would then count the piles.

“If their totals don’t agree, they start over again,” Sherman said.

The decision to scale down the recount came after days of scrambling among recount supporters and uncertainty over how much money they would put forward. Leavitt, who has testified to the Legislature about unfounded claims of voter fraud, set the tumultuous process in motion when she requested the recount on Friday afternoon.

Under Kansas law, requesters of primary ballot recounts must put up a bond for the cost of the recount. If the results of the election do not change the bond will be cashed and distributed.

While state law required the recount request to be submitted by 5 p.m. Friday, the law doesn’t require the bond to be provided simultaneously, according to Whitney Tempel, a spokeswoman for Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab.

Counties will have have until Saturday to complete the recount.

On Friday Leavitt provided the state election office with a credit card from the Kansas Republican Assembly that did not have the needed $230,000 in credit. The office, however, temporarily accepted the credit card.

The Kansas Republican Assembly is a hard-right group unaffiliated with the official Kansas Republican Party. Over the years, it has taken on a number of ultra-conservative and anti-government positions, including opposition to fluoridated water among other issues.

On Monday, Leavitt emailed the office that Gietzen’s financial assets — on TikTok she said it included his house — would be put up as the bond.

Schwab’s office rejected the bond, insisting instead on cash, check, cashier’s check, or a credit card with sufficient funds to cover the $229,334 cost of a recount.

Leavitt ultimately raised more than $40,000 on a crowdfunding platform.

Gietzen, who aided abortion opponents in taking over the Sedgwick County Republican Party in the wake of the 1991 “Summer of Mercy” protests in Wichita, before the Aug. 2 election filed a lawsuit in a failed attempt to have ballot drop boxes removed. The lawsuit was dismissed, but Gietzen is appealing.

Without offering evidence, Gietzen has suggested the election was plagued by massive fraud. His claims fit into a larger, nascent electoral conspiracy movement in Kansas that has made baseless allegations of electoral misconduct, often centered on incorrect interpretations of election law or voter registration statistics.

The primary vote yes campaign, the Value Them Both Coalition, distanced itself from the recount effort in a statement last week. The group reiterated its lack of involvement in the recount Monday.

“Every citizen has the right to request recounts, but our focus is now on moving the cause of life forward in Kansas—not looking back to August 2nd,” Danielle Underwood, a spokeswoman for Kansans for Life and the Value Them Both Coalition, said in an email.

Kansas treasurer race recount

State Sen. Caryn Tyson also put up a reduced bond for a recount in the state treasurer’s GOP primary Monday. Tyson is trailing in a tight race against state Rep. Steven Johnson, an Assaria farmer.

On Friday Tyson requested a recount in 55 counties, which would have cost more than $45,000. She ultimately paid a bond for a more limited recount with a full recount in Cloud, Harvey, McPherson and Ottawa counties. She requested a partial recount in Dickinson and Barton counties. The recount will cost $2,570.

Michael McGraw, campaign manager for Democratic incumbent Treasurer Lynn Rogers, expressed frustration that Schwab’s office had allowed Tyson to change her request after the deadline.

“The fact of the matter is that this is the result of them indulging the election deniers, and the big lie and the extremists,” McGraw said.