TOPEKA, Kansas — Just months after Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly won a second term, Kansas Republicans have begun rolling out two bills that would change the way the state handles its elections.
Had one of the bills been law last year, it would have led to a runoff after Kelly won a narrow victory over Republican Derek Schmidt with a plurality instead of an outright majority of the vote. It would force the top two candidates in a statewide general election race into a one-on-one showdown if neither gets more than 50% of the vote.
The other bill proposes eliminating a three-day grace period for returning and counting early ballots. This may reduce some of the votes cast by mail. Democratic voters use mail-in ballots more often than Republicans.
University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller said the bills are likely attempts to give the Republicans, the dominant political party in the state, an edge.
“Both sides,” Miller said, “like to have laws that favor them and make victory more likely. Let’s be honest about this: electoral laws are political.
In recent years, Republican lawmakers and voter integrity groups have argued that the changes would make elections in Kansas fairer and safer. The proposed bills also follow a nationwide effort by Republican-dominated states to limit access to the ballot since then-President Donald Trump pushed unfounded election fraud charges after losing the 2020 election.
Democrats and turnout groups oppose the laws. State Representative Brandon Woodard, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Election Committee, said the proposals make it harder to vote in Kansas and are the result of conspiracies that the election was stolen.
“This is just another voter suppression effort by people who believe in the big lie (about alleged voter fraud),” Woodard said.
State Representative Les Mason, a McPherson Republican, has proposed creating a ballot to ensure that anyone elected to a statewide position is supported by a majority of voters.
“Kansas deserves,” Mason said, “to have that faith in whoever we install in that office that the majority of the public backs them.”
With a runoff election, a candidate would need to gain more than 50% of the vote to be the winner. In the event that a three-way race splits the vote with no candidate getting more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates head to another election.
This would likely be common in races featuring more than two candidates. For example, the last three gubernatorial elections have seen multiple candidates and one winner with less than 50% of the vote.
Last fall, Kelly defeated Schmidt with 49.5% of the vote. Republicans believe Kelly’s victory was aided by rogue conservative state Senator Dennis Pyle, who left the GOP to run as an independent candidate. He challenged both Kelly and Schmidt from the right, arguing that both are liberals.
Miller said the perception of Pyle taking conservative votes away from the traditional Republican is likely leading lawmakers to make changes they believe would favor their party. Additionally, some Republicans believe Kelly’s 2018 win over Republican Kris Kobach benefited from Greg Orman’s independent bid that year. She has been elected governor twice, without winning a majority on either occasion
But the data shows Orman likely took votes away from Kelly, not Kobach, Miller said.
“There are certainly those who misperceive that Laura Kelly has won only two gubernatorial elections because of an independent candidate,” Miller said. “They’re wrong, but some of those people have the power to introduce laws.”
Voter groups opposed the legislation and suggested the state consider ranked-choice voting instead. This is a form of election where voters rank their choices among candidates. A winner is decided through a snap ballot decided by those ranked preferences and only requires voters to cast their ballot once.
Woodard also noted that Georgia, a state with high-profile runoff elections in recent years, is seeking to scrap the system.
Critics also cite the cost of holding a second election. The Kansas Secretary of State’s office, which oversees the election, estimates that a runoff would cost the state an additional $6 million. But county election offices would be responsible for those bills.
Postal voting deadline
Proposal to eliminate the three-day grace period renews control over mail-in voting in Kansas. Republicans have proposed its elimination before, with the Kansas Senate moving a bill last year.
The most recent proposal would only allow ballots to be counted if a county election office receives them by 7:00 p.m. on Election Day. Currently, ballots returned by mail are counted if they are postmarked by Election Day and received within three days of the polls closing.
Madeline Malisa of the Opportunity Solutions Project told the commission that eliminating the grace period would increase confidence in elections and produce faster election results.
“Mail ballots arriving three days after an election,” Malisa said, “can undermine voter confidence in the outcome, especially in cases where a close race suddenly turns upside down after Election Day.”
Republican Rep. Pat Proctor, chair of the committee, said boosting public confidence in elections through change is a good policy decision.
But some lawmakers wondered whether the ballots would be rejected through no fault of the voter. Rep. Kenneth Collins, a Republican from southeast Kansas, said one of his constituents told him he couldn’t mail his ballot until the weekend before Election Day, but was hopeful it would be counted due to the grace period.
Many opponents of the bill also said the change would disenfranchise certain voters. Some military voters stationed overseas may vote by mail, but sometimes have the option of voting by email.
Woodard said in an interview that the bill would limit voting rights for Kansans who rely on mail-in ballots, such as rural residents and Kansas voters who are out of state.
“This is depriving people who are away from college,” Woodard said. “These are people whose mail systems take a little longer because of where they are.”
Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen(at)kcur(dot)org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.
Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished free of charge by news media with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.