Kansas D.A. refuses to prosecute violations of new law that halted voter registration drives

By: - July 28, 2021 11:10 am

Members of the Johnson County chapter of the League of Women Voters help register new voters at a naturalization ceremony in 2019. The nine Kansas leagues are abandoning plans to attend naturalization ceremonies this summer, as well as all other voter registration and education efforts, for fear of criminal prosecution under a new law. (Submitted)

TOPEKA — Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez says she won’t prosecute anyone under a new state law that caused nonprofits to halt voter registration efforts at the start of July.

The legislation’s sweeping reforms include a provision that makes it illegal for individuals to engage in conduct that would cause someone to believe they are an election official. Valdez said the law is vague and subjective, and that it is already illegal to impersonate an election official.

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez says a new voting law is vaguely written and intended to weaken voter registration efforts. She will refuse to file charges for any of the law’s provisions, she says. (Submitted)

The inevitable effect of the law is to weaken voter engagement efforts, she said.

“This is not a partisan issue,” Valdez said. “This law criminalizes essential efforts by trusted nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters to engage Kansans on participation in accessible, accountable and fair elections. It is too vague and too broad and threatens to create felons out of dedicated defenders of democracy.”

Jill Jess, a spokeswoman for Valdez, said the district attorney’s office would refuse to prosecute anybody under any other provision of the new law, which also deals with signature matching, tampering with mail-in ballots and obstructing election workers.

“The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office is focused on real issues of public safety and justice,” Jess said. “This is a law looking for a problem, and much of what it covers is already covered by other statutes.”

The announcement by Valdez on Tuesday follows the decision by the League of Women Voters of Kansas and Loud Light to halt voter registration efforts for fear of being charged with a felony. The nonprofits are among those who filed a lawsuit in Shawnee County District Court to challenge the constitutionality of House Bill 2183.

District Judge Teresa Watson has not yet ruled on a request for a temporary injunction, which would block enforcement of the law while the case is litigated.

Leaders of the nonprofits said they still don’t feel comfortable engaging with voters in Douglas County, even with the district attorney’s blessing.

“This doesn’t change anything for us at this time,” said Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas. “We feel there are still many unknowns related to this law and look forward to getting clarity soon.”

Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, said Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office — which is defending the lawsuit — also has the authority to file charges for violations of the new law.

“I’m glad that district attorney recognizes these laws are overly broad, unconstitutional voter suppression laws, but the A.G. would still be able to prosecute these,” Hammett said. “You would still have this situation where police officers can arrest you.”

Hammet said the stakes are too high. Under the law, false representation of an election official is a felony crime with a punishment of up to 17 months in prison and a $100,000 fine.

“We’d be in a different position if it’s like a parking ticket, but it’s nothing like that,” Hammet said.

The GOP-led Legislature capitalized on the outcry over former President Donald Trump’s lies about widespread voter fraud. There were no problems with Kansas elections last year, and the changes in law do not address the known security vulnerabilities or extraordinarily rare examples of voter fraud in Kansas.

Hammet said concerns about the law’s impact on voter registration efforts were raised during conference committee negotiations, before lawmakers advanced the bill for votes by the House and Senate.

“Legislators were aware of this,” Hammet said.

Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the bill, but was overridden by the two-thirds GOP majority in both chambers.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.