A Shawnee County Election Office volunteer drops a ballot into a dropbox on Oct. 20, 2020. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed two bundles of election reform measures Friday that would have restricted advance voting, eliminated emergency powers to alter voting procedures, added a new crime for turning in others’ ballots, and strengthened penalties for existing election crimes.
Kelly also vetoed a bill allowing teenagers to carry concealed firearms after obtaining a state permit. It also would have automatically enabled people with conceal-carry permits issued by other states to take hidden handguns into public throughout Kansas, even residents of the 10 states that allow certain convicted stalkers to obtain permits.
The governor also rejected a bill expanding the list of specialized license plates because it included a plate displaying the Gadsden flag, which has a yellow field depicting a rattlesnake. The flag has fallen under scrutiny because it was named for Christopher Gadsden, a merchant who built a wharf in Charleston, S.C., where thousands of slaves were brought to America.
Kelly’s latest actions brought to eight the number of bills vetoed since the 2021 Legislature left Topeka for a break. Lawmakers return May 3 and could consider overrides of Kelly on the election, concealed firearm and flag bills as well as bills on taxes, transgender sports, K-12 gun training and high school graduation requirements.
Questions remain about what Kelly plans to do with the new state budget bill that excluded funding for K-12 public schools.
Republican-led enthusiasm during the 2021 legislative session for reform of Kansas election laws stemmed from the false narrative of widespread voter fraud promoted by former President Donald Trump and his supporters. Courts and election officials repeatedly rejected those claims as Trump allies attempted to nullify the victory by President Joe Biden.
Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, told legislators the 2020 election in Kansas were secure and fair. He said he wasn’t sure how Kansas could do better and that election officials across the country were “looking at the way we do things and how they can implement it.”
“Although Kansans have cast millions of ballots over the last decade, there remains no evidence of significant voter fraud in Kansas,” Kelly said. “We also know what happens when states enact restrictive voting legislation. Hundreds of major companies across the nation have made it abundantly clear that this kind of legislation is wrong. Antagonizing the very businesses Kansas is trying to recruit is not how we continue to grow our economy.”
Under House Bill 2183, the Legislature sought to make it more difficult for individuals or organizations to collect and deliver to election centers the absentee ballots of voters. Republican critics of so-called ballot harvesting sought to make it a misdemeanor — an earlier version called for felony charges — to transmit more than 10 absentee ballots of other people. In addition, the bill forbid anyone from gathering and delivering absentee ballots from anyone other than immediate family members.
Rep. Pat Procter, a Republican from Leavenworth, the state’s existing laws jeopardized credibility of elections if “we can’t be sure that the ballots cast at home have the same rules applied to them as the ballots cast at the election box.”
The companion legislation, House Bill 2332, would impose new requirements on individuals or groups urging by mail that a registered voter file an application for an advance ballot. In the future, the measure would require this type of solicitation to include the name and address of the individual or organization making the request, the name of the organization’s executive administrator as well as a statement declaring the mailing wasn’t from the government.
Nadine Johnson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said the “raft of cynical voter suppression bills” vetoed by the governor were designed to disenfranchise Kansas voters. Democracy requires participation, she said, and “measures designed to stifle participation are, by definition, undemocratic.”
“Voting is a right, not a privilege conferred on a favored faction able to traverse a bureaucratic, statutory maze calibrated to weaken turnout,” Johnson said. “These measures rammed through the last session are intended to make voting more difficult.”
Kelly also vetoed House Bill 2058, which would enable people 18 to 20 years of age to carry concealed weapons in public. These individuals would earn that right by completing a firearm safety course, a background check and paying a fee to the state.
“Throughout my time in public office, I have been a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and of Kansans’ right to own firearms,” the governor said. “But we can respect and defend the rights of Kansas gun owners while also taking effective steps to keep our children and families safe. Legislation that allows more guns on campus is neither safe nor effective, and it will drive prospective students away from our schools.”
The governor’s veto of House Bill 2166 regarding the Gadsden flag was expected. She said the flag was a “symbol of racism and divisiveness” and was imprudently inserted into an otherwise acceptable piece of license plate legislation.
Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes, a Johnson County Democrat, said the state had a long history of standing up for moral principles that would have been tarnished by the Gadsden flag plate. The plate would have financially benefitted the Kansas State Rifle Association, which is the state affiliate of the National Rifle Association.
“Taxpayers from the free state should not be subsidizing divisive iconography that glorifies a man who advocated for and profited from the slave trade. The Gadsden flag is antithetical to our founding principles, and it has no place on official Kansas plates,” Sykes said.
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