Kansas voting advocates navigating new maps and law as registration deadline approaches

By: - June 3, 2022 9:08 am
Connie Brown Collins appears at a news conference at the Statehouse to protest new congressional maps

Connie Brown Collins appears at a news conference at the Statehouse to protest new congressional maps. She said it was critical that voting advocacy organizations do everything they can to address feelings of ambivalence within communities of voters who feel disenfranchised. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas voting advocacy organizations are grappling with what new congressional and legislative maps mean for registration efforts, while also navigating a new law that interferes with their work.

The Kansas Supreme Court issued separate rulings last month declaring the congressional and legislative maps approved by the Republican-led Legislature complied with the state constitution. The decision reversed a district judge’s opinion that the congressional map moving Lawrence from the 2nd District to the 1st District and splitting the Democratic stronghold of Wyandotte County was unconstitutional.

Connie Brown Collins, of the Voter Rights Network of Wyandotte County, said community members have been reluctant to get involved with politics in the past, but the new maps have exacerbated feelings of ambivalence.

Collins said it was critical that organizations do what they must, even going door to door, to mobilize and ensure voters know what is at stake if they don’t vote.

“Wyandotte County will come back stronger, and I think that is the case for Lawrence and for other counties around the state that feel like they were bruised during the redistricting process,” Collins said. “I hope that others take up the mantle and that we will not forget.”

The Legislature redraws the state’s four congressional districts and boundaries for state House and Senate seats based on results of the U.S. Census every 10 years. The maps reflect population shifts from rural to more urban areas.

Republicans in the Legislature worked to undermine the reelection prospects of U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat representing the 3rd District. The new congressional map removes from her district voters north of Interstate 70 in Wyandotte County who supported her in past elections. Several groups filed lawsuits arguing the new maps targeted voters on the basis of race and politics to create an unfair advantage for Republicans.

Collins is among the activists hoping to ensure voters who feel disenfranchised by these changes do not disengage from the political process completely. But some groups say they cannot work effectively to register voters and improve election participation because of provisions in House Bill 2183.

The law prohibits “knowingly” engaging in “conduct that gives the appearance of being an election official” or “would cause another person to believe a person” is an election official.

Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, said instead of actively being in the streets and engaging with voters, groups like his are being extremely careful not to break the law. Loud Light is among those advocacy groups currently in a legal battle in the Kansas Court of Appeals over the validity of the law after a failed injunction attempt.

“There’s a lot of reasons to be frustrated, like Lawrence being surgically carved out to try to dilute their voting strength,” Hammet said. “But we’re in this weird thing where a lot of the ways that you would counteract that are being criminalized.”

Defendants have argued the law does not criminalize these registration efforts because they would need to “knowingly” be impersonating an official.

Hammet said his organization registered 10,000 Kansans in 2020, but because of the law and because the court has yet to make a ruling, they have registered none this year. The voter registration deadline for the Aug. 2 primary is July 12.

Martha Pint, co-president of the Kansas League of Women Voters, said the redistricting efforts and election policy changes are meant to dissuade voters from heading to the polls.

“When you put all of these things in the mix, I think there’s going to be a lot of very unhappy and disgruntled voters come this election cycle,” Pint said.

Part of the process for groups like the league, Pint said, is clearing up confusion and overcoming the obstacles created by the new election law.

“I’ve got bills to pay, and I’ve got things to do, and my day care shut down, and now you want me to go vote?” Pint said. “We must try and overcome those obstacles on top of the district lines changing. It is piling on.”

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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.