Election reform bills bring fiery debate for their impact on voters

By: - March 29, 2021 2:27 pm

The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Larry Alley, R-Winfield, passed out Senate Bill 307 Friday. The measure removes a three day buffer on when advanced ballots must arrive at the local election office. (Jan. 13, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A Senate committee’s handling of an election bill last week and legislation considered by the House ignited heated debate over the danger of changing laws that make it more difficult to vote in Kansas.

The Senate Federal and State Affairs approved a bill Friday amending the timeframe in which an advanced ballot must be returned to the county election office. Under current law, ballots must be postmarked on or before Election Day and received by Friday, but the bill would eliminate the three-day buffer.

Voting rights advocates said 32,000 ballots would have been thrown out in 2020 if this rule were in place, and it would disenfranchise thousands more Kansans in the future. 

The committee advanced Senate Bill 307 over those objections, citing a need to ensure elections run smoothly. 

“I want to make sure we have a fair election, I want to have a transparent election, and I’ll make sure we have a secure election,” said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Larry Alley, R-Winfield and chairman of the committee. “We’ve heard a lot of things. And again, Kansas was not a problem according to what the Secretary of State’s office said, but that is not true for all the rest of the states. We do not want to open ourselves up to have those things come into Kansas.”

The bill will head to the Senate floor for further debate. It capped off a week filled with controversial election legislation up for debate around the Statehouse.

Democratic Senators on the committee said the bill appeared to be blatant voter suppression.

Sen. Ethan Corson, a Prairie Village Democrat, who has spent time working on election reform, recoiled at the idea of approving such a measure regardless of intent.

Sen. Ethan Corson, D-Prairie Village, called Senate Bill 307 blatant voter suppression that should not be supported regardless of intention. (Jan. 21, 2021, photo by Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

“What matters is the effect of this law, and the effect is that this law is point blank a voter suppression law,” he said.

There was no evidence of any voter fraud that required such a significant change, Corson said. He said testimony the committee heard indicated this would just making voting more difficult. 

“I think the reason that people are concerned about the integrity of our elections is not because there’s been any problems, not because there’s any evidence that there are problems,” Corson said. “It’s that we have people who, for political advantage, are deliberately misinforming voters about the security of our elections.”

There were several other Senate bills heard in an informational hearing in the House that triggered debate Tuesday. The hearing covered Senate bills 94, 292, 293, 11 and 35.

Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, questioned the need for a hearing on the bills to begin with. He said there was not a clearly defined issue these bills would address in Kansas. On the contrary, he opined the bills would create dilemmas.

“With all these bills, the biggest question is if there is a clearly defined problem and is there a carefully crafted solution to that problem, and I would argue there’s really neither here,” Hammet said. “No problem has been identified in this state. There are accusations of things that happen in other states — other states that have extremely different election laws than us.”

Senate Bill 292 would prohibit any person from delivering more than five advance ballots on behalf of other voters. Proponents of the measure said this was to limit the practice of so-called “ballot harvesting.”

“Any voter can assist any voter and be involved in the most intimate part of the voting process, i.e. the filling out of the ballot, and marking of the ballot and then also be involved in the transmittal of that ballot to the election office,” said Ryan Kriegshauser, former Kansas deputy secretary of state. “What we’ve done in Senate Bill 292 is just try and cap the number of ballots that a third party can take to the election office.”

Opponents of the bill noted this was not a significant issue documented in Kansas. 

Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, said he engages in helping his constituents deliver ballots when they ask him to. 

“Why should there be a threshold of six if my constituents trust me to return their ballot? And they request that I do it? Why do I have to tell person No. 6 that I can’t?” Miller said.

Another Senate bill would not permit counties to accept or spend funds outside of their appropriated budget. Any such spending would require a budget amendment. The bill is in response to $350 million donated by Mark Zuckerberg to a nonprofit distributing grant to election offices around the country. About 20 Kansas counties received these grants.

Steven Green, of the Opportunity Solutions Project, raised concerns about possible stipulations attached to these funds.

“One of the most important aspects of our election process is the idea that people have to have faith in the results, and they have to trust the process,” Green said. “I think anything that requires strings attached to grants in local elections can obviously create an air of undermining that process”

Hammet expressed concern this bill could have unintended consequences.

“This bill appears to outlaw accepting even volunteers,” he said. “It’s a common thing to have volunteer poll workers who choose to either receive funds or to do it as a volunteer have donated polling space, which happened for some of the big arenas. This bill, it turns the election official into a felon if they are involved in accepting this volunteer work or these donations.”

Hammet said grants like these could be used to address the cost of instituting other pricier legislation, like Senate Bill 94.

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)

This measure would amend existing law by banning county officials from using certain voting machines that do not provide a verified paper trail of votes. According to the Kansas Association of Counties and the Secretary of State’s office, fewer than 10 counties do not already have these machines in place.

Still, the legislation would mark a significant policy change, said Katie Koupal, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office.

“The bill would only allow one type of machine that is currently available in today’s marketplace, which limits the ability of counties to purchase,” Koupal said. “I also want to point out that section 3(B)(3) appears to allow voters to voluntarily waive their right to a secret ballot, and it’s just long-standing practice in Kansas that election officials should never be able to identify a voter’s ballot or their vote on that ballot once it has been submitted to a ballot box.”

Some opponents said provisions creating a margin of error audit — which would produce a percentage of confidence in the results rather than the certification of the results — would introduce more voter confusion. 

Mike Burgess, with the Disability Right Center of Kansas, urged legislators to consider how limiting the voting machines could make voting more difficult.

“We would encourage you to tread lightly to allow technology to help fill this void because the goal would be to allow voters to vote without assistance and to ensure that privacy, because it is their right to vote,” Burgess said.

Two more bills were scheduled to be discussed before the committee ran out of time. Senate Bill 11 was introduced by a coalition of Senate Republicans, including Sen. Richard Hildebrand, who filed the bill to make it a crime to alter or backdate the postmark of an advanced ballot.

Senate Bill 35 would remove the option to extend the time of receipt of advanced ballots following an election. Under current law, the secretary of state may authorize additional time of receipt beyond the usual three days following the election.

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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.