TOPEKA – The Kansas Senate on Wednesday debated four election bills banning the use of ballot boxes, setting a shorter deadline for early voting by mail, allowing candidates for nonpartisan local offices to add party affiliation to ballots and forcing candidates in writing to affirm their candidacy three weeks before the election.
Republican Shawnee Senator Mike Thompson, among lawmakers stoking election security skepticism in Kansas, introduced Senate Bills 208, 209, 210 and 221 as needed to improve efficiency, transparency and public trust in the state voting system. Each gained ground despite repeated assurances from Secretary of State Scott Schwab, the state’s top election official, that voting was fair and safe in Kansas. Final votes on the bills were scheduled to take place on Thursday, but all had to pass and pass in the House.
Thompson, chairman of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, pointed to alleged irregularities with voting in Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan during President Joe Biden’s 2020 election to justify reform in Kansas. He said voting is a privilege and that people have a responsibility to work within the framework of state law to participate in elections.
He said an example of the needed change was inserted into Senate Bill 209, which would stop accepting early mail-in ballots when polls close on Election Day. It would abolish the grace period for ballots sent by 7pm on Election Day but not arriving for three days.
“Late ballots threatened the veracity of the count,” Thompson said. “I think by drawing lines and saying, ‘This is the end of us accepting these ballots,’ it actually builds confidence that we have electoral integrity in the state of Kansas. It just gives credence to the whole process.
Several senators have raised questions about the legislative package being touted by the GOP leadership in the Senate, arguing that the bills would disenfranchise the elderly and disabled, as well as people serving in the military and college students who rely on options early voting.
“There’s no problem here other than alienating people,” said Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat angered by the consideration of a no-excuse 7 p.m. deadline for early voting.
Senator John Doll, a Garden City Republican, has proposed an amendment that initiates ranked-choice voting in Kansas. Under his proposal, voters would rank their preferences among all candidates for office. The approach relies on second-, third-, and fourth-choice votes to achieve a 50% majority for the winning candidate. However, the amendment was not voted on because it was deemed irrelevant to the bill in question.
Two amendments requested by Senator Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, were also rejected. One of these would have required manually counting the final election results.
Forbid list boxes
In its original form, Senate Bill 208 would have rationed ballot boxes in Kansas to a maximum of one per county, whether it was Johnson County with more than 600,000 residents or Greeley County with 1,200 people. The bill was designed so that the only early voting box would be located inside the county’s electoral office. That box would be continuously monitored by two people from different political parties during office hours.
Tyson, the Republican, has offered an amendment banning the use of mailboxes statewide. It passed 22-16, with both Republicans and Democrats voting against.
“I strongly support voter integrity,” Tyson said. “Delivery Boxes allow for the possibility of foul play.”
Senator Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, said there was no question about the state’s 105-county ban on reliance on mailboxes for voter convenience and that election officials would discourage Kansan citizens from voting. He said reform advocates don’t appreciate that some of their constituents have not been able to go to the polls themselves to cast their votes. She said supporters of the bill were the type of people who threatened her for opposing the repressive electoral legislation.
“I’ve received threats. That’s why I wasn’t here this morning,” said Faust-Goudeau.
Sen. Marci Francisco D-Lawrence said a ban on drop-boxes and a 7 p.m. deadline for early voting would serve to undermine participatory democracy.
“The two bills would create a very difficult situation for voters to return their ballots,” Francisco said.
No more grace period
Under Senate Bill 209, the three-day grace period for early mail-in ballots would be repealed. That state law creating that buffer was passed in 2017 by votes of 40-0 in the Senate and 123-1 in the House. It was a response to service changes by the United States Postal Service that were supposed to slow down mail delivery.
The Senate bill would set a strict deadline for all early voting at 7 p.m. on Election Day, Thompson said. Had the same provision been in effect during the 2020 election, it would have blocked the counting of 32,000 ballots statewide.
“When we draw the line and say, ‘Is Election Day over?'” Thompson said. “That is what this bill intends to do. It gives everyone the same finish line.
He said 30 states have required absentee ballots to be received by election workers on or before Election Day.
Doll, the Garden City Republican, said the uncertain pace of mail delivery argued against ending the three-day grace period. He said a letter mailed to his neighbor across the street in Garden City was processed at a Wichita postal station. At Elkhart, local mail was sent to Amarillo, Texas for processing. And at the Tribune, local mail was forwarded to Denver to be sorted.
“It would seem to me that if we had voter fraud, it would be all over the papers,” Doll said. “This bill is unnecessary.”
The goal of Senate Bill 210 was to override city ordinances and county resolutions that barred candidates for nonpartisan office from including their party affiliation on ballots. Passing the bill would allow candidates for school board or city office to voluntarily display their political party affiliation on ballots after July 1, Thompson said.
Senator Jeff Pittman, a Democrat in Leavenworth’s employ, said enactment of the bill would bar federal employees from running for local office because the Hatch Act of 1939 restricted the political activity of federal government employees.
“We have some great people who are retired military or current federal government employees who are in some important roles,” he said. “I feel like they contribute to our community and public service and that would disenfranchise a lot of people in my community.”
Thompson said this bill was about transparency in terms of partisan loyalties. He speculated that a small number of Kansas residents with federal jobs would be barred from serving in elected office.
“They eliminate themselves in this particular situation. If they decide they want to take a federally funded job in whole or in part, they do it as they please,” she said.
Under Senate Bill 221, written candidates in state and local elections would be required to file an affidavit prior to the election confirming interest in seeking nomination and election to that office.
Written votes would not be counted if candidates for the Legislature, state board of education, district or magistrate judge, district attorney, county offices, and first-class city offices fail to file an affidavit at least three weeks after election day. It would not apply to municipal elections, Thompson said.
Thompson said the bill makes sense because it would allow poll workers to stop counting frivolous write-in votes for Fred Flintstone, Superman and others.
“Bottom line: This is a bill to make the lives of our election officials and the secretary of state a lot easier during the election,” Thompson said.