Kansas legislators consider bills to amend advance voting laws, filling vacancies

By: - January 29, 2021 3:00 pm

Rep. Bill Sutton, R-Gardner, testified Thursday on behalf of a bill limiting who may deliver advanced ballots on behalf of another. He said the bill would shore up any murky areas of Kansas election law. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

TOPEKA — Kansas legislators are weighing a bill limiting who can deliver an advance ballot on behalf of another person in an attempt to prevent potential “ballot harvesting.”

Ballot harvesting is when a third party collects a large number of ballots and submits them to the election office. President Donald Trump often pointed to the practice among his baseless claims of voter fraud during the 2020 election.

The practice is not illegal under state law unless another election crime is committed, such as voter fraud. If passed, however, the legislation being considered by lawmakers would limit those who may deliver advance ballots on another’s behalf to family or a caretaker.

The bill mirrors legislation introduced during the legislative session last year, where it passed out of committee but was never heard by the entire body.

Rep. Bill Sutton, R-Gardner, said the election went smoothly in Kansas but changes were needed to tighten any loopholes in election law.

“We just need to be able to affirm to our voters that in Kansas their election is absolutely legitimate,” Sutton said. “We saw what happens when, across the country, people questioned the legitimacy of their voting.”

Sutton, one of two proponents — both state representatives — testified Thursday before the House Elections Committee and said the law would prevent any future wrongdoing. Opponents who testified said the bill was searching for a problem that did not exist and would only open the state to future litigation and court costs.

While Sutton said he was not aware of any examples of ballot harvesting in Kansas, he compared the practice to electioneering, which is banned at polling places. He said the law would make it significantly harder to pressure a person into voting one way or another.

Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, said it was already a felony to influence someone else to change their vote.

“Are you familiar with anyone that wants to take the chance of serving months in prison to alter a person’s vote?” Miller asked Sutton. “I’ve never met someone who was willing to take that risk for a vote.”

If passed, any violators of the proposed election law would be charged with a felony. The legislation does not detail who is to be considered family or a caregiver.

Kendall Seal, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said this bill was an example of overreach that would merely disenfranchise voters and lead to more nonviolent criminals in the criminal justice system.

“This bill makes felons out of neighbors helping neighbors,” Seal said. “It will criminalize volunteers from community service organizations and nonprofits helping to get out the vote.”

Several critics echoed Seal’s assertion that the proposed law would suppress the vote. It is common practice for disabled people, senior citizens and those lacking transportation to seek assistance from a neighbor, friend or others to deliver their ballot.

Turning a practice that has been legal for decades into a felony would result in many law-abiding Kansans having their right to vote stripped and their criminal record tarnished, said Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light. He said the bill was seeking to address a problem that current election law already covers.

“This is really a solution in search of a problem, a problem that doesn’t exist here,” Hammet said. “So, in essence, it is voter suppression in search of some kind of justification. There’s no justification for this.”

The House Elections Committee also heard brief testimony on a second bill altering how vacancies are filled for the positions of the insurance commissioner and state treasurer.

Under current law, if either position should become vacant before the end of the specified term, the governor would fill that position. This has occurred several times in recent Kansas history, as previous treasurers — U.S. Rep. Ron Estes, former U.S. Rep Lynn Jenkins and most recently U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner — have left their post to run for Congress.

The proposed change would place authority to fill the vacancy into the hands of delegates across the state from the party of the departing officeholder.

The bill comes a month after Gov. Laura Kelly chose then-Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers, a Democrat, to fill the vacancy left by LaTurner, a Republican.

Testifying to the committee, Kansas Republican Party chairman Mike Kuckelman said the measure would better address voter intent than current law does.

“The voters voted for a person to occupy the office, but many of us voters do that because of the political party, because of what the person stands for, because of the agenda,” Kuckelman said.

Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, believed that mentality to be presumptuous of the voter’s true intent.

“I think it’s true some voters vote based on party. I just don’t think we should set policies specifically to accommodate one set of voters and not the other,” Parker said.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.