Kansas Senate gives major shakeup of ballot drop box, mail voting law green light

By: - March 27, 2022 11:06 am

An election bill backed by Sen. Rob Olson would end a three-day grace period for by mail voting and limit the number of ballot drop boxes allowed in each county. The measure passed 22 to 17 and now goes to the House. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Busy with the violin, working two jobs, club and community events, and pursuing a major in political science and sociology, Donnavan Dillon said access to ballot drop boxes and by-mail voting played a critical role for college students like him being able to vote.

A bill approved last week by the Kansas Senate would limit drop boxes in all but the largest areas of the state to one per county and add new security measures for surveillance. It would also end a three-day grace period for mail ballots to arrive after Election Day, requiring ballots be received by 7 p.m. on election night.

Dillon, a freshman at the University of Kansas, said this would hinder voter participation among busy college-age students. And it wasn’t just college students who would lose access to voting but working-class families and the elderly as well, he said.

“Stand with the working-class families who fuel Kansas’s economy, students who represent Kansas’s future, and the elderly who have made Kansas the great state that it is today by protecting our voting rights and access to mail-in voting and drop boxes,” Dillon said in written testimony to legislators on the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, led by Sen. Rob Olson, R-Olathe.

The Senate approved the measure by a narrow 21 to 17 vote, sending it to the Kansas House for further vetting. Six Republican senators opposed the measure.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of drop boxes increased dramatically, as did by-mail voting. Some counties opted for as many as five drop boxes for the general election.

The bill would change that, limiting the 20 largest counties to one drop box per 30,000 residents and perhaps more notably limit any counties with fewer than 30,000 registered voters to just one remote box. The boxes must be in a government building or be manned by poll agents.

Efforts to end the three-day grace period have popped up in the Legislature in the past but none have succeeded in passing through the Legislature. Supporters said this was necessary because changing voting tallies after election night would hinder trust in elections.

“We’re trying to give people more certainty in what we’re doing, to give them more confidence in the process,” Olson said.

Vote counts could still change under the proposed bill, as provisional ballots are judged days later and results are not final until the board of county canvassers meets.

Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s office told legislators last year that 15,000 general election ballots, or 1% of voting Kansans, arrived Thursday and Friday.

The Olathe Republican also said other changes to election law in the bill — moving forward by three days when a person can request a mail ballot and allowing shipping services to send ballots if it is close to Election Day — would compensate for the change.

However, Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, batted away concerns that legislators were up against a deadline, requesting instead the bill be sent back to the committee.

“If this is the last ship out, it’s a leaking ship,” she said.

Francisco echoed concerns voiced by voting rights advocates and state election officials who said the bill would not address any issue facing the state.

Drop boxes were commonplace in the 2020 election, and no evidence exists that drop boxes or mail voting promote voter fraud. Secretary of State Scott Schwab has maintained that drop boxes are a safe and secure way to cast a ballot.

At the core of Francisco’s argument were concerns that while more urban counties may be less affected by the changes, those in other areas may suddenly have to trek long distances on tight schedules to drop off their ballots.

“We haven’t even agreed on what a ballot box looks like,” Francisco said. “There are some things in this bill that I support, but too many that I do not.”

An amendment to the bill would require that drop boxes be in a government building and continuously surveyed by an employee when accessible to the public. Sen. Richard Hildebrand, R-Baxter Springs, brought the amendment because he noted video cameras would do less to prevent any illegal activity and may not capture someone’s face.

But Sen. Ron Ryckman Sr., R-Meade, confirmed some of the concerns Francisco expressed for rural counties. He said the move would be effectively impossible for smaller areas in the state. 

“There is no way they could man them,” he said. “And when we have trouble with the mail, a lot of people are using these drop boxes.”

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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.