Kansas lawmakers on Thursday approved a slate of bills that would ban the use of ballot boxes statewide and limit mail-in voting, despite a split among Republicans over the merits of such moves.
Both bills passed before the two-thirds threshold needed to override Governor Laura Kelly’s veto.
The debate creates the rare scenario in which two prominent Republican officials — Secretary of State Scott Schwab and Attorney General Kris Kobach — disagree over polling restrictions, with Schwab and several Republican lawmakers raising concerns about its impact, particularly on rural voters.
Most officials agree that the 2022 election in Kansas went smoothly.
But unsubstantiated conspiracy theories surrounding the election have only increased in the state, with elected officials and activists alike arguing that the state’s election security protocols are overly lax and that perceptions need to be corrected.
“There is nothing more fundamental to our governance than voter confidence that election results reflect the will of the people,” said Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, chair of the House Elections Committee . “And anything we can do to improve trust is a public good, a political good, and something we should be doing.”
Schwab, for example, was challenged by a conservative Republican, Mike Brown, who argued that the state wasn’t doing enough to deter fraud. Brown is now chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, a sign that the Kansas voting debate will be even more important, not less.
“We now have a perfect system,” said House Minority Leader Vic Miller D-Topeka. “The idea that people have lost faith in the election is because we have a bunch of nutcases running around pretending they have fraud without a single piece of evidence to back up this case. But yeah, if you repeat an incorrect statement often enough , eventually people will make him believe it.
Changes to the ballot box have divided Scott Schwab and Kris Kobach
Initially, Senate Bill 208 would have limited the use of mailboxes to one per county.
But lawmakers voted to amend the bill to ban them outright at the behest of Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, who argued that they “allow for the possibility of foul play.”
“I want to know that every vote counts and that every vote is worth its weight, that no artificial votes are being cast,” Tyson said.
In the 2022 election, 85 counties used the ballot boxes, with some, such as Sedgwick and Johnson counties, using more than half a dozen.
Schwab has long argued in favor of mailboxes, arguing that the security concerns raised by their critics are unfounded and that they are more reliable than the United States Postal Service.
His office instead favored a bill, advanced earlier this month by the House Elections Committee, that would give Schwab’s office the ability to make rules after consulting with local election officials.
“Why on God’s green earth would you want the United States Postal Service to handle your vote?” Schwab said.
But Kobach, who campaigned last year to eliminate mailboxes, argued that the practice effectively makes it impossible to enforce the state’s ban on anyone returning more than 10 early votes.
He pointed to a prominent case of ballot collection in North Carolina by Republican officials and argued that the practice occurs with “significant regularity,” although there is no evidence of widespread fraud in Kansas.
“To add this additional measure, which makes our crime of collecting ballots unenforceable, I’d say it fails the cost-benefit analysis,” Kobach said.
The debate has become contentious. Senator Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, said she kicked all four doors of her car because of her opposition to legislation such as a drop box ban.
She has noticed that her mother and aunts fought for the right to vote and she wants to keep fighting to make voting easier.
“I’ve received threats recently, racial threats have come to me recently on Facebook, my home… my emails, my cell phone,” said Faust-Goudeau. “I didn’t even use my phone all day because I didn’t want to see any more messages.”
Lawmakers passed the bill by a 21-19 vote, with seven Republicans opposing the measure to leave lawmakers shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto.
Kansas lawmakers choose to narrow vote-by-mail window amid criticism
House and Senate lawmakers also passed legislation that would shorten the window for early mail-in ballots to reach the county’s election office.
Currently, mail-in ballots will count if received by local election officials by 5pm on the Friday following the election, provided the postmark is Election Day. House Bill 2056 and Senate Bill 209 would end the so-called “three-day grace period” and require ballots to be returned by 7:00 p.m. on Election Day.
Proponents have argued that the measure is needed to boost confidence in mail-in voting, arguing residents are confused and dismayed by the results that could be affected by late incoming mail-in ballots.
Senator Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee likened it to giving the losing team in the Super Bowl more time to attempt to score, even if they were losing after four quarters. Those who struggled to get their mailed ballots in time had other options, he added.
“They can vote on something called Election Day. Voting is a privilege,” he said. “If it were an inalienable right, we would distribute ballots to babies and criminals. If you want to vote, you have a duty to get your ballot in on time. The post office cannot be a consideration. We cannot write legislation that compensates for their ability or inability to get your vote in time.”
When asked if he knew of any voter fraud, however, Thompson said he should have conferred with Kobach or Schwab, who argued that the state is free from widespread problems, but added that “just because I’m not Aware doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”
Senator John Doll, R-Garden City, said the bill was a “slap on the back” for rural voters and was “just insane.”
“In this world today, it seems like if we had voter fraud it would be all over the papers,” Doll said.
But the results reported by state and local election officials are unofficial and could still change as counties adjudicate provisional ballots at the county election commission.
Voter advocates, meanwhile, argue that eliminating the three-day grace period will increase the number of ballots cast for some classes of voters who rely on mail-in ballots, such as people with disabilities and voters who they work on election day.
The US Postal Service has become increasingly unreliable in recent years, critics of the bill argue. In Kansas, mail often has to be routed to New Mexico, Colorado or Missouri to be processed before returning to the state, even if it is delivered 10 miles down the road.
Sick Kansas would allow partisan labels in local and school board elections
Lawmakers rejected, however, a bill that critics say would effectively end nonpartisan local elections in the state, after 13 Republicans joined all Democrats in opposition.
Senate Bill 210 would have allowed candidates for city, county or school council positions to list their political affiliation on the ballot and would have overridden local regulations on the matter.
Proponents say it’s a voluntary way to give voters more information about local candidates on their ballot.
“A candidate who decides to provide their party affiliation in their own name has simply made the decision to provide more information to city and school board voters,” said Eric Rucker, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Larry Alley , who helped draft the bill. “This is a step in the right direction. It’s an act of transparency that gives voters more information on which to base their decisions.”
But local governments oppose what they see as a loss of local control. And there are concerns that people who are drafted into the military or employed by the federal government would be restricted from applying for local positions, as they are barred from seeking partisan office.
“I think it potentially would have a freezing effect if an individual thought it might affect their employment,” John Goodyear, a lobbyist for the Kansas League of Municipalities, told lawmakers. “I think they would just choose not to run for that office, rather than go and fight.”
Senator David Haley, D-Kansas City, noted that when lawmakers moved local elections from fall to spring, a compromise was struck to ensure they were nonpartisan races.
“The issue isn’t muddled by team sport of partisan affiliation, if you will,” he said.