Federal judge affirms constitutionality of Kansas’ 250-foot buffer zone at voting sites

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt signed onto a brief with more than a dozen attorneys general in a Texas lawsuit questioning swing-state vote counts in the election President Donald Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt signed onto a brief with more than a dozen attorneys general in a Texas lawsuit questioning swing-state vote counts in the election President Donald Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A U.S. District Court judge dismissed a lawsuit challenging a Kansas law prohibiting people from engaging in electioneering within 250 feet of a polling station, the attorney general said Wednesday.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt said the judge ruled state law didn’t infringe on constitutional provisions related to exercise of First Amendment rights.

District Judge Holly Teeter, a 2018 appointee of President Donald Trump, concluded all 50 states had laws restricting electioneering to limit voter intimidation or election fraud, Schmidt said. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a challenge to a similar Tennessee law because there is a compelling interest in protecting citizens’ right to vote by use of distancing limits on electioneering, he said.

The suit was filed against Secretary of State Scott Schwab and Johnson County Election Commissioner Ronnie Metsker by residents of Sedgwick, Johnson and Douglas counties as well as the organization Kansas for Change. The plaintiffs said the 250-barrier was unreasonably large.

“I appreciate Judge Teeter’s ruling that the Constitution permits, and history and common sense favor, these sorts of laws that preserve the right to vote and ensure the integrity of Kansas elections,” Schmidt said.

Schwab, who was eventually replaced as a defendant by Schmidt, said he appreciated the attorney general’s “guidance on this issue and look forward to a safe and secure election in November.”

Under Kansas law, people cannot wear, exhibit or distribute labels, signs, posters or other materials that clearly identify a candidate in the election or indicate a perspective on ballot questions within a 250-foot radius from the entrance of polling sites. The restriction applies to advance voting sites and polling locations on election day.

Violation of the misdemeanor crime of electioneering is punishable by up to one month in jail and a fine of up to $500.

In 2019, plaintiffs James Clark, Roseanne Rosen, Daniel DeGroot and Kansas for Change filed suit to prevent enforcement of Kansas’ electioneering buffer zone and policies censoring speech within a 250-foot radius of an open polling location.

“At 250 feet — just short of the length of a football field — Kansas has one of the largest electioneering buffer zones in the country,” the plaintiffs said. “A 250-foot radius encompasses 18,241.4 square meters and is over six times
larger than the surface area of the election buffer zone that the Supreme Court validated in Burson v. Freeman.”

The Kansas plaintiffs also said Kansas was the only state that didn’t exempt speech on private residential or commercial property from its electioneering statute.

Schmidt authored a nonbinding opinion two years ago that said nonpartisan voter assistance activities or signs within the buffer zone didn’t constitute electioneering.