GOP restraint of House member’s voting-rights speech hinges on meaning of ‘tediously’

Procedural dispute exposes sentiment on racism, hypocrisy

By: - March 24, 2021 12:28 pm
Frustrated Republican Rep. Blake Carpenter, center, idles in the Kansas House chamber while Democratic Rep. Vic Miller makes good on a promise to engage in a presentation on a federal voting rights bill. Carpenter and GOP allies shut Miller down with an obscure rule that found Miller guilty of being tedious. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Frustrated Republican Rep. Blake Carpenter, center, idles in the Kansas House chamber while Democratic Rep. Vic Miller makes good on a promise to engage in a presentation on a federal voting rights bill. Carpenter and GOP allies shut Miller down with an obscure rule that found Miller guilty of being tedious. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — In fairness and with obvious delight, Rep. Vic Miller warned Kansas House colleagues he would victimize them with a lengthy, monotonous analysis of federal election legislation if a Republican resolution denouncing Washington Democrats’ views of voting reform wasn’t sent back to a committee for refinement.

“I have no intention of apologizing to anyone about what follows,” the Topeka Democrat said. “I fully expect, before I’m done, that a lot of people are going to grow impatient.”

Lawrence Rep. Barbara Ballard, second row right, shared dismay with Kansas House members about objections to federal law designed to guarantee voting rights of Blacks and other people of color systematically disenfranchised in the past. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

The GOP-dominated House crushed 38-84 his motion Tuesday to refer House Concurrent Resolution 5015 introduced by Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, back to the House Elections Committee chaired by Carpenter, who authored the document. House and Senate resolutions are a formal method of sharing insight with President Joe Biden, members of the Kansas congressional delegation or others on all sorts of subjects. In this case, it was the view of a majority in the Kansas House that the U.S. House engaged in reckless work on an election overhaul measure called For the People Act of 2021.

Miller said he considered the Kansas House resolution a waste of time and blatantly partisan, while Carpenter indicated the resolution served as important testimony in opposition to attempts by the U.S. House to suffocate rights of states to regulate voting. He asserted the federal bill would degrade accuracy of voter registration lists, welcome illegal immigrants to the rolls, create a playground for hackers and allow underage people to vote with impunity. The U.S. Senate has yet to take up the federal reform bill.

“If passed,” Carpenter said, “this bill would force massive changes to U.S. elections. Currently, the system recognizes that what might work for California or Colorado does not work for Kansans. This is about protecting free speech. This is about protection our 10th Amendment rights.”

On Wednesday, the Kansas House voted 84-38 to issue the resolution outlining the chamber’s disapproval of the pending federal legislation.


Miller’s gambit

During initial debate on the resolution Tuesday on the House floor, Miller lived up to his warning by strolling through some of the hundreds of pages of the U.S. House’s plan to adjust administration of elections nationwide. It ended about two hours later when the House Rules Committee deployed an obscure provision of Mason’s Rules of Order to silence Miller.

He was shut down by rule 121.1: “No one is to speak impertinently, or beside the question, superfluously or tediously.”

Rep. Fred Patton, R-Topeka, delivered the microphone-drop ruling that Rep. Vic Miller had to stop a speech on reform of federal election law on the Kansas House floor because it became “tedious.” (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)

Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican, huddled with other legislators for about 25 minutes before emerging with the guilty verdict against Miller.

“We have found that he was being tedious,” Patton said.

Miller chewed through an additional three minutes of the day before surrendering the microphone. While hitting highlights of the U.S. House bill, Miller reminded folks of voter fraud charges brought during 2020 in Shawnee County against U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins, the 2nd District Republican defeated in the August primary. Miller was able to weave into his presentation failure in 2018 of Secretary of State Kris Kobach to defend at trial a state law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. That law was ruled unconstitutional.

At one point, Carpenter accused Miller of punishing the House because it didn’t want to refer the resolution back to the elections committee.

“This is not punishment. This is education,” Miller said. “I just don’t think it’s right that they should be able to make up their minds and cast a vote on this message until they fully understand the contents.”

Wichita Rep. John Carmichael picked up Miller’s thread and questioned why Republicans objected to the federal attempt to provide funding to counties in Kansas for replacement of computer systems that didn’t create a paper trail helpful in recounts. While doing so, Carmichael invoked the Mason rule to taunt Carpenter.

“I would ask the carrier of the bill to tell me why in the world that’s a bad idea, but that would be tedious and I wouldn’t want to violate the rule,” Carmichael said.

Instead, he answered his own question. He said the simple reason was the Kansas House was controlled by Republicans and the U.S. House was led by Democrats.


A ‘stolen’ election

As the verbal sparring continued, House committee chairmen and chairwomen had to cancel or postpone meetings. Representatives wandered around chatting among themselves. Many left the House floor to grab lunch. Laptops and phones provided a diversion.

Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, R-Ness City, failed to convince House colleagues that individual liberty interests should be respected to the extent of forcing nursing homes to welcome visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, a Ness City Republican who said President Donald Trump had election victory “stolen” from him, said the Kansas House should adopt a resolution in opposition to a U.S. House election reform bill. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

“Why would you condemn a bill in Congress that was trying to assist persons with disabilities in the process of voting? I don’t get it,” Miller said.

Carpenter refused to respond: “It is my opinion you’re being deleterious. I’m not going to help facilitate that.”

Rep. Tatum Lee-Hahn, R-Ness City, and several other Republicans weren’t at a loss for words. She said a vote for the Kansas House resolution was a vote for liberty and an expression of gratitude for living in the land of the free and home of the brave.

“In a time when many have lost faith in the election process due to a stolen presidential election,” Lee-Hahn said, “we must fight back to send a powerful message to the rest of the country. Kansas will not allow our elections to be subverted any longer.”

Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, has said repeatedly Kansas elections in 2020 were fair, efficient and accurate.

Rep. Eric Smith, the Burlington Republican, said the rhetorical show by House Democrats was laced with hypocrisy and indifference to facts. Supporters of the U.S. House bill endorse a “political gang” that relentlessly attacked Trump for alleged election tampering but found no evidence of wrongdoing when Biden was elected with a record number of votes, he said.

“It should not surprise anyone we are more than a little gun-shy to let that same mob mentality fundamently change our election processes and take even more power from the states,” Smith said.

Wichita GOP Rep. Susan Humphries said she jotted down 30 objections to the U.S. House bill. She said one flawed provision of the federal bill would legalize nationwide mail-in voting without providing proof of identification. She said it would promote ballot harvesting by volunteers who collect advance ballots and transfer them at an election office.

Not all of the U.S. House bill should be viewed as problematic, said Rep. Susan Estes, a Wichita Republican married to U.S. Rep. Ron Estes of Kansas, but potential of unintended consequences warranted rejection of the federal bill. Her evidence was a motor-voter law passed decades ago that made it difficult to remove inactive voters from the rolls.


Poll tax and more

Early in consideration of the resolution, Rep. Brett Parker, an Overland Park Democrat, proposed an amendment urging the Kansas congressional delegation to get behind full restoration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional portions of the landmark law credited with increasing minority congressional representation and minority turnout.

Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Shawnee, said failure of the Kansas House to recognize importance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the ongoing struggle of people of color to vote was “insulting.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Miller interjected that political leaders had a responsibility to make certain all citizens secured the right to vote. However, Carpenter argued Congress shouldn’t pass legislation in defiance of a Supreme Court decision. Parker’s amendment was defeated 39-83.

Rep. Barbara Ballard, a Black Democrat from Lawrence, said it was painful to hear people push back against progress in election participation.

“We have worked way too long to get our African Americans and people of color to vote,” she said. “Why do we not celebrate an increase in Americans voting?”

Following in her wake was Rep. Susan Ruiz, a Shawnee Democrat who said House Concurrent Resolution 5015 “should be insulting to everyone in this room.” She said her father was an immigrant from Mexico and her parents were forced to pay a poll tax in Texas when voting. The poll tax wasn’t applied to white voters, she said.

“It is important that everyone have the ability to vote and we stop putting in all these roadblocks,” Ruiz said. “If you think that that isn’t true, come and talk to one of us who is of color. We can tell you many stories of what it’s like to struggle year after year after year to make sure we have equal access to the polls.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.