House committee considers ways to limit Kansas governor’s authority in elections, vacant offices

Rep. Vic Miller, R-Topeka told members of the House Committee on Elections that inclusion of the judicial branch in a bill limiting who can change election law would carry no weight. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Kansas bill advanced favorably by the House committee overseeing elections aims to limit the authority of the governor to alter election laws or procedures.

The bill would prohibit the governor from altering state election laws through an executive order. It also would prohibit the executive branch and judicial branch from altering election laws without approval from the Legislative Coordinating Council, although those opposing the bill said this would not actually affect the scope of the judiciary’s authority.

Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, proposed removing any reference to the judicial branch rather than mislead Kansans of the actual effect of the measure.

“If we pass a law saying the judicial branch shall never do anything again, it would have no force unless we modified the Constitution,” Miller said. “We’re fooling ourselves or maybe fooling other people by putting this language in thinking that courts won’t be ruling on election cases. They still will.”

Miller’s amendment failed on a tiebreak vote by Rep. Blake Carpenter, a Derby Republican and chairman of the House Elections Committee.

The proposal is one of two bills seeking to restrict the governor’s role in election law discussed Thursday by the panel of legislators. The second bill would remove the governor’s responsibility to fill certain statewide vacancies.

Opposition to the bill limiting alteration of state election law said its “fatal flaw” was a provision repealing the secretary of state’s authority to designate alternate methods of distributing ballots in cases where voters are unable to “obtain ballots as provided by law.” They argued the pandemic proved the need for flexibility.

To remedy this concern, Rep. Cindy Neighbor, D-Shawnee, proposed an amendment striking this provision from the bill completely. If left as is, the bill would invite the possibility of Kansans being disenfranchised, she argued.

“We’ve had wildfires out in parts of Kansas, and they’ve been devastating. We’ve had floods and major snowstorms where people can’t get around. When that comes up next, and it’s a time of voting, what are we going to do?” Neighbor said. “It’s not broadening the powers. It’s making sure that there is no voter suppression.”

Rep Brett Parker, D-Overland Park, said that while urban areas can pivot, rural areas might not have the resources or polling locations necessary to adjust.

Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, R-Ness City, asserted that the secretary of state’s authority to act in emergency situations was being exploited. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Others, like Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, R-Ness City, argued county clerks already had wide latitude to make the necessary adjustments, and she said the secretary of state has more power than necessary.

“I feel these emergency powers have been exploited,” Lee-Hahn said. “As someone who lives in a rural area, a very rural area, we might be country, but we’re pretty resourceful.”

The committee voted in favor of Neighbor’s amendment to maintain the secretary of state’s emergency authority before passing the bill favorably, with three legislators in opposition.

The second bill discussed would alter how vacancies for state treasurer or election commissioner are filled.

Under current Kansas law, the governor appoints someone to fill these positions when vacated before the end of the term. This has occurred several times in Kansas, most recently when now-U.S. Rep. Jake LaTurner left the post of treasurer after winning election to Congress.

The proposed change would place the authority to fill the vacancy in the hands of state party delegates of the departing officeholder. This is after Gov. Laura Kelly chose then-Lt. Gov. Lynn Rogers, a Democrat, to fill the vacancy left by LaTurner, a Republican.

The committee had planned to take final action on the bill but, after discussion over uncertainties and questions regarding the definition of a state delegate, tabled discussion. Several Democratic committee members said it was critical to know the specifics of who would be filling the vacancy before the bill progressed.

While language for that part of the bill is derived directly from a statute on how a gubernatorial nominee vacancy should be filled if the position should open between the primary and general election, the bill discussed Thursday uses the term state delegate rather than chairperson.

Given the number of lawsuits the state has faced over election law, Democrats on the committee stressed getting it right.

However, Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Fort Leavenworth, said this line of conversation amounted to nothing more than a stall tactic.

“We’re pole vaulting over molehills here on what a state delegate is,” Proctor said. “Anybody who has been involved in their individual party politics has a colloquial understanding of what that is.”