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A Kansas county shredded old ballots as the law required, but the sheriff wanted to save them

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — The most populous county in Kansas has rejected demands from the local sheriff and the state's attorney general to preserve old ballots and records longer than legally allowed, shredding materials sought for an election fraud investigation that has yet to result in any criminal charges.

Johnson County in the Kansas City area issued a statement Thursday that its election office finished Wednesday destroying ballots and other records from 2019, 2020 and 2021, under the direction of the secretary of state, the top elections official in Kansas. State law directed local election officials to shred such materials by the fall of 2022, but the Johnson County election office held off because of an investigation its local sheriff, Calvin Hayden, launched in the fall of 2021.

Hayden, a Republican, has questioned the integrity of the county’s 2020 elections even though there's been no credible evidence of significant problems and none statewide. In the summer of 2022, he also participated in a conference for a group that promotes a dubious theory that sheriffs have virtually unchecked power in their counties.

Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach sent the county a letter in December, telling it that it should preserve the records, saying that allowing Hayden to complete his investigation would promote public confidence in elections and would be “in the interests of justice.” Kobach, also a Republican, was an early supporter of former President Donald Trump who has for years described election fraud as a serious issue. Kobach also served as secretary of state from 2011 through 2018.

But the county's brief statement said that its election office did the required shredding in the presence of a bipartisan team of observers and “in compliance with Kansas statute.” Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab's office said in a statement that there was no legal barrier to the destruction of the materials.

“All 105 Kansas counties are now in compliance with state law regarding ballot retention and destruction,” the statement said. “Legal compliance has always been a priority for the Secretary of State’s office.”

Schwab also is a Republican but he has strongly defended the integrity of Kansas elections, receiving criticism from lawmakers and others who've embraced baseless election conspiracy theories.

Hayden has said he received scores of tips about potential irregularities starting in the fall of 2021, and his office said in December that the investigation was still ongoing. He did not have an immediate comment Thursday, though his office said he planned to respond.

Kobach's office also did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Hayden is elected independently from the county commission. Under Kansas law, the secretary of state appoints election commissioners in each of the state's four most populous counties, and Schwab appointed Johnson County Election Commissioner Fred Sherman.

Andy Hyland, a spokesperson for the county, said that after December, it had not heard further about the old ballots and records from either Hayden or Kobach.

Kansas law requires election officials to destroy the ballots for local elections after six months unless a result still is being contested. Ballots in state and national elections must be destroyed after 22 months. Under those rules, all ballots for 2020 and 2021 were to be destroyed as of September 2022.

But baseless conspiracy theories have circulated widely among Republicans since the 2020 elections and prompted the GOP-controlled state Legislature to tighten election laws in the name of restoring public confidence.

Trump also continues to falsely claim that he won the 2020 election, and Hayden has said he began to question the previously solidly Republican county’s elections when Trump lost there. The county’s politics have become more Democratic over time — in part because of some suburban voters’ distaste for Trump.

While secretary of state, Kobach served as the vice chairman of a short-lived Trump presidential commission on election fraud. He also championed tough voter ID laws, one of which required new voters to show papers documenting their U.S. citizenship when registering and was struck down by the federal courts.

John Hanna, The Associated Press