Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden has been facing intense criticism for an ongoing probe into possible integrity issues in his county.  It’s understandable that his actions would be questioned, given that Democrats and Republicans have made allegations of elections being ‘stolen,’ but much of the criticism seems partisan in nature.  Democrats and self-identified Republicans who promote a more authoritarian style of government don’t like having an elected sheriff who thinks independently.  They tried to change the county charter to make the sheriff an appointed position, but that effort failed. 

Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden

The fire has been coming from both the media and within county government, including Johnson County Chief Counsel Peg Trent, who accused Hayden of attempting to interfere with elections in an internal memo.

However, Hayden said in an interview with the Sentinel that nothing could be further from the truth.

Hayden said, far from wanting to interfere, he is simply working to help make sure the county’s elections were secure.

Chain of custody violations

By law in Kansas, the County Election Officer — generally the county clerk — is in charge of how elections are conducted, right down to which voting machines are used and how ballots are transported to counting sites.

This can mean — as in some counties — that locked boxes of ballots are transported to the county courthouse, where only the election officer has a key, and then are opened in front of representatives of both parties. But it can also mean that voting machines are opened at the polling place and either counted there or placed in unlocked boxes to be taken to the courthouse.

Hayden said, when his investigation started, he discovered that — particularly at drop boxes, the “chain of custody” was broken or nonexistent. 

In law enforcement, “chain of custody” means that every step, from the time a piece of evidence is collected until it is presented in court, is documented. From the officer who collected it to the property clerk who stores it, to when an attorney checks it out for use in a case, pictures are taken, receipts signed, and descriptions written — so that it is clear the evidence has never been out of police custody or tampered with.

In 2020 only two of eight drop boxes had cameras pointed at them, and in at least one case, ballots were nearly lost when the drop boxes were opened.

The policy is that the lockboxes are opened with one member of each party present, which apparently did happen, but the ballots are loose within the boxes.

“So as I was watching the film … when they went up there, they opened them up, and the wind caught a couple,” Hayden said. “They blew off, and a bystander caught (the ballots) for them. But they had no idea how many they picked up.”

Hayden then had a meeting with the election commissioner.

“I said, ‘look, in our world, chain of custody is huge. We have to verify every step in that chain. And that way, we know exactly where everything is. How do you guys do that?'” Hayden says the response was, ‘we send a couple of guys up, they pick up the ballots … and they drive them back.’

“I said, OK, well, can they stop in between?’ ‘Well we hope not,’ was the answer. 

Hayden then asked, “‘Could they stop and pick up some more ballots and put them in that bag or even switch them out?'”  The response was, “That’s never happened.

“I said, I understand that. But could it?”

Hayden said the answer was, “No, we just don’t think so.”

He was also told the people picking up the ballots do not count them so there’s no way to be sure how many ballots were actually collected at any given drop box. He said he was told there is no way to “count the ballots in the weather.”

One would think that drop boxes and the lockboxes inside voting machines would only be opened by a county clerk in the presence of representatives of both political parties to ensure integrity.

Hayden said he offered to have deputies escort the people dropping off empty boxes and picking them up when voting is closed.

“We can’t involve ourselves in the election process .. but we can certainly provide security,'” he said. “That turned into a letter from the attorney … that said that we were trying to insert ourselves in the election — nothing could be further from the truth. All we wanted to do was give people peace of mind.”

Investigation began because authority to investigate is unclear

Hayden said he began his investigation because he had people coming to him in public and at “meet the sheriff” events with concerns, and when he directed them to Secretary of State Scott Shwab’s office, they were told to contact the attorney general’s office as the secretary of state lacked the authority to investigate.

However, he said, the AG’s office told people the authority to investigate had been delegated to the secretary of state, but “it’s usually a local issue.”

“So it came back to us,” Hayden said. “So I said, ‘Look, if they’re not going to investigate it, it’s our county, if something’s gone wrong, we’ll look into it.”

This has now been going on for over a year, and Hayden said he’s had more than 200 complaints — although NPR reports that so far, he has only released one offense report as part of an open records request.

At the end of the day, Hayden said, his office is working to assure citizens that proper security procedures are in place to eliminate even the appearance of impropriety.  

“There shouldn’t be any fraud, and I’m not worried about the 2020 election,” he said. “Our goal was to try to do everything we could to make sure that this last year’s election was secure.”

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