Kansas ‘ballot harvesting’ bill raises concerns of voter suppression among voting rights advocates

By: - March 16, 2021 3:38 pm

Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, called a bill limiting the number of advanced ballots one can deliver voter suppression that would only criminalize friendly neighbors trying to help. (Screen capture of Kansas Legislature Youtube by Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Voting rights advocates characterized a bill heard Tuesday limiting the number of advance ballots one can deliver on behalf of another person as an attempt to justify voter suppression in Kansas.

Senate Bill 292 would seek to address the practice of “ballot harvesting” by limiting any person assisting in delivery to five total ballots. Ballot harvesting is a derogatory term for gathering advanced ballots from voters and delivering them to the election office, although no issues with this arose in Kansas during the 2020 election.

The practice is not illegal under state law unless another election crime is committed, but if passed delivering more than five ballots would result in a felony charge. 

Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, a civic action organization, said the issues the bill is seeking to address, like influencing voters or knowingly choosing not to deliver a ballot, are already criminalized. Instead of creating a more equitable voting system, the bill would strip the right to vote from many simply trying to help.

“The only thing this will do is make it a crime to properly and dutifully help and fulfill your obligation to your neighbor,” Hammet said. “The sixth person you help, all of a sudden you lose your right to vote, and you could go to jail.”

Ballot harvesting was among practices often referenced among baseless accusations of voter fraud by President Donald Trump. A similar bill limiting who can deliver these ballots died in the House Elections Committee earlier this session.

The bill was among several election bills heard in the Senate Elections Committee or on the House floor Tuesday.

Following the 2020 election, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab told House and Senate legislators there was no indication of widespread voter fraud or any issues that required a significant change to state election law.

Why then is change necessary, asked Michael Poppa, executive director of MainStream Coalition.

“The additional clause to limit the number of advanced ballots a person may transmit on behalf of others would be a drastic change, and it would disenfranchise Kansans and restrict our ability to vote, which is central to our democracy,” Poppa said. “We see this as a harmful solution looking for a problem that just doesn’t exist.”

Ryan Kriegshauser, a proponent of the bill and a former deputy secretary of state under Kris Kobach, argued the intention was not to limit voting access but ensure transparency and accountability in the voting system.

A second bill heard in the Senate committee would require third-party mailers soliciting advanced ballot registration to identify themselves prominently. This would require the name, director, address of the organization and disclosure that it is not a government mailing to be written in 14-point font.

Rep. John Toplikar, R-Olathe, championed the bill as a way to ensure increased transparency and clarity in future elections.

“I wanted to try to address voter confusion because comments were made that some voters received as many as nine ballot applications in the mail,” Toplikar said. “It’s my hope that this bill, after requiring clear identification of the sender, would address voter confusion.”

Opponents of the bill argued most mailers already comply with these requirements and expressed concern that the specificity of font size could result in unintentional criminal acts.

On the House floor, a bill expanding the crime of election tampering received first-round approval from the chamber.

Under House Bill 2339, the definition, currently limited to one line in state statute, would now include changing, altering, destroying or concealing any ballot and manipulation of a vote using computer hardware. It would also define producing false vote totals under a reckless standard as tampering.

Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, praised the measure as a positive step toward addressing the need to ensure election integrity.

“I’m one that believes whatever we can do to make it easier to vote we should, while at the same time protecting integrity,” Miller said. “I believe this bill is a good one because it doesn’t make it harder for people to vote.”


Sending a message to Congress

Concerns in the House Elections Committee regarding imposed election reform via the U.S. Congress’ For the People Act of 2021, commonly known as HR1, were on display Tuesday as legislators debated a state resolution condemning the proposed national measure.

HR1 would expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws and create new ethics rules for federal officeholders among several provisions. Kansas legislators expressed concerns this would place an undue burden on state and local election officials by way of several unfunded mandates.

Rep. Emil Bergquist, R-Wichita, praised a Kansas resolution condemning HR1 for maintaining division between Kansas election policy and that of other states. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

In response, the committee passed a resolution urging Congress and Kansas congressional delegation to reject the act as legislative overreach.

“I don’t want our elections to become one large state. I don’t want our division of our peoples or our way of life to become one large state,” said Rep. Emil Bergquist, R-Wichita. “I like this resolution because it’s the strongest statement we can make.”

While Miller, the committee’s ranking minority member, expressed dismay the bill was written so broadly to apply to all states and contained provisions that would likely hinder Kansas, he opposed the Kansas resolution.

“While I might be able to agree that there are provisions that we should hone in on as being detrimental to our political system as we enjoy it in Kansas, there is just way too much that is good in that bill to take such a strident anti-HR1 position,” Miller said.

The Topeka Democrat said if a resolution were crafted specifically condemning the concerning provisions, he may be persuaded to support such an effort.

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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.