Kansas officials, advocates grapple over election integrity and voting access

By: - January 7, 2022 9:00 am

A legislative agenda laid out by the secretary of state and committee chairman indicate election integrity is a priority in 2022, but advocacy groups are angling their focus toward expanding access to the polls. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — After a 2021 legislative session packed with election proposals, Kansas officials and advocacy groups again are looking at both election integrity and accessibility issues.

Election laws passed last year by the Republican-led Legislature, including one that threatens felony prosecution for any activities that could be mistaken as the work of an election official, received heavy criticism. Lawsuits ensued, setting the stage for when legislators return to Topeka on Monday for the new session to tackle voter registration issues, voter roll maintenance and securing elections.

Secretary of State Scott Schwab laid out his legislative agenda for 2022 this week, including recommendations to begin a process to render voters who skip two elections inactive and to expand election audits beyond the current 1% of ballots audited.

“Securing our elections through enhanced audits will not only bolster the integrity of our elections now but for generations to come,” Schwab said.

He added, “by securing voting equipment, enhancing election audits and voter roll maintenance, Kansans can have confidence that these simple changes will enhance security without causing voter confusion.”

Schwab called for expanded voter roll maintenance. Currently, there are four reasons an election office can send a confirmation notice to a voter to ensure the accuracy of voter registration lists. If voters don’t respond, their status on the voting list will be updated to inactive after missing two consecutive national general elections.

The secretary of state touted a proposed bill allowing election officials to send a notice after two years without voting activity.

“It is vital to have our state’s voter registration list accurate and updated,” Schwab said. “Without continuous maintenance, the Kansas electoral system can become vulnerable for fraud and duplicate voting.”

Many involved in the election process, including the secretary of state, have argued Kansas elections are already among the safest and most secure in the country. While election rights advocates say there are ways to further secure elections without blocking voters, many argue the focus should be on reversing course from a legislative session they saw as detrimental to the voting process.

Sharon Brett, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, questioned whether the new reason for voter roll maintenance proposed by Schwab is allowable under the National Voter Registration Act.

“We remain concerned that Secretary Schwab will attempt to purge valid voters from the rolls in violation of the NVRA in the name of ‘election integrity,’ when the true goal is disenfranchising particular Kansas communities,” Brett said. “Secretary Schwab has repeatedly touted the fact that the Kansas elections have been incredibly secure and devoid of fraud. Why is a new purge process needed if this is already the case? Why is a fix needed when, by the Secretary’s own proclamations, nothing is broken?”

One point of emphasis the ACLU, among other groups, would like to see addressed is same-day registration. Brett said that would expand voting access, as would repealing the laws passed last session.

Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, highlighted proposed legislative action to remove the documentary proof of citizenship requirement from state statute. While federal courts found the requirement unconstitutional, it remains on the books. The 2013 law required new voters to show a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship before registering to vote, blocking 35,000 eligible voters from participating in elections before courts struck the law down.

“You hear stories later in life about how some city still has a law about how horses can’t be out past midnight that is under statute,” Lightcap said “This feels like something that we can fix easily so that it doesn’t stay clogging up our statutes with unnecessary regulations.”

These issues will be addressed in House and Senate committees. Sen. Rob Olson, chairman of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, said time was already set aside for a review of election legislation.

Olson said his committee will have three information presentations, starting Tuesday, followed by an overview of bills involving election topics.

“The first of next month, the committee will dive more deeply into protecting the integrity of the election process,” Olson said.

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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.