Kansas lawmaker considers banning drop boxes to appease election deniers

By: - March 8, 2023 4:16 pm
Gary Morgan and Hannah Mingucci appear at a March 7, 2023, hearing of the House Elections Committee

Gary Morgan and Hannah Mingucci appear at a March 7, 2023, hearing of the House Elections Committee. Both testified in support of legislation that would ban the use of drop boxes in Kansas. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Rep. Pat Proctor imagines a scenario in which his wife leaves their SUV parked in the driveway with the vehicle’s back door open.

He compares this scenario to arguments surrounding the use of drop boxes in Kansas elections. On one hand, there is no evidence of voter fraud associated with drop boxes. On the other hand, he believes they could be vulnerable to voter fraud.

Similarly, he has no evidence that any car on his street has ever been robbed. During a hearing Tuesday on legislation that would ban drop boxes, he supposed he should leave the door open all night until he has proof that he has been robbed.

Dropping the hypothetical, he returned to the subject at hand.

“I just think that if we see a vulnerability, why would we not try to address the vulnerability in order to improve voter confidence?” Proctor said.

Rep. Pat Proctor
Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Leavenworth, presides over a March 7, 2023, hearing of the House Elections Committee. Proctor questioned whether it is worth inconveniencing voters by banning drop boxes in exchange for restoring confidence in elections. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Proctor, a Leavenworth Republican, serves as chairman of the House Elections Committee. The panel heard testimony on Senate Bill 208 from two Kansans who harbor fears about the integrity of elections, and numerous opponents who say those fears are unfounded.

“So far, our office has not received any credible reports of a single ballot coming in through a drop box that was not requested and properly filled out by a properly registered voter,” said Clay Barker, deputy assistant secretary of state.

The legislation — championed by Attorney General Kris Kobach, who rose to prominence by spreading misinformation about voter fraud — would have implemented administrative hurdles to effectively eliminate the use of drop boxes. Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, introduced an amendment during Senate debate that turned the bill into a simple ban on drop boxes. The Senate passed the bill 21-19 on Feb. 23.

Kansas has used drop boxes in every election since 1978. Seven counties used four or more drop boxes last year, 27 counties used two drop boxes, 45 counties used one drop box, and 20 counties didn’t use any at all.

Drop boxes became a flashpoint for controversy during the 2020 presidential election cycle when the pandemic contributed to a surge in advance ballots. President Donald Trump and his supporters then lied relentlessly about make-believe fraud associated with drop boxes to support his bogus claims of a stolen election.

Since the 2020 election, the GOP-led Legislature in Kansas has passed and debated numerous laws to impose restrictions on early voting, while trying to appease a base that now harbors deep concerns about election integrity.

Hannah Mingucci
Hannah Mingucci says lawmakers aren’t hearing those in the state who want election integrity. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Hannah Mingucci was among six Kansas residents who filed a federal lawsuit last year hoping to decertify the results of the 2020 presidential election. A federal judge dismissed the case for being “long on suspicion, contingency and hypothesis, but short on facts.”

Mingucci, a Johnson County resident, showed up to Proctor’s hearing Tuesday wearing a “1776 Forever Free” T-shirt. She appeared to be on the verge of tears as she urged legislators to pass the ban on drop boxes.

“I don’t think you guys hear everybody in the state of Kansas that wants election integrity,” Mingucci said. “I personally do, and I hope you guys do, too. I mean, we can’t validate anything that goes through that ballot box. So please consider getting rid of the ballot boxes, and please consider listening to the rest of the state of Kansas, because we really do not want the drop boxes, and we really do want election integrity.”

Gary Morgan, a Shawnee resident who set up a video camera in the corner of the room to record the hearing, told lawmakers he participated in an extensive canvass last April in Johnson County. He said 40 people split into 20 teams that knocked on 40 doors each. They found examples, he claimed, of voters not living where they were registered when they cast a ballot in the 2020 presidential election.

Gary Morgan
Gary Morgan, of Shawnee, says “big pharma” controls elections. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Morgan told lawmakers the Johnson County sheriff — who gained attention last year by making baseless claims of voter fraud — has the results of the canvass.

In an interview after the hearing, Morgan said he didn’t know who organized the canvass, or who told him it was happening, which houses to go to and which questions to ask.

“The problem in this country right now — I’m going to go 100,000 foot on you here — is ‘big pharma’ owns us, every one,” Morgan said in the interview. “They own our judges, they own our election officials on both sides of the aisle. And they know if they control elections, they control everything. And that, we believe, has happened.”

Seven individuals provided written testimony in support of the bill, including Kansas GOP chairman Mike Brown, an election denier who lost a GOP primary race to Secretary of State Scott Schwab. Forty-five people submitted written testimony in opposition of the bill.

Nobody had signed up to speak in favor of banning drop boxes, but Mingucci and Morgan stepped forward when Proctor asked if there were any bill supporters in the crowd.

Proctor said Mingucci and Morgan are a representative sample of people who have deep concerns about voter integrity, and who see drop boxes as a significant vulnerability. He questioned the merits of preserving drop boxes when they are only used for 0.8% of ballots.

“If that brings all these folks that have deep concerns about the integrity of our elections back over into having confidence in our elections, is it worth inconveniencing slightly point-eight-percent of voters to get that?” Proctor said. “I mean that’s a pretty huge payoff if we can bring those folks back.”

Jim Howell and Brad Hansell
Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell points to a chart comparing the security of drop boxes to mail boxes during a conversation with Brad Hansell before the start of the hearing. Hansell harbors concerns about the vulnerability of drop boxes. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Sedgwick County Commissioner Jim Howell, a Republican who served in the House from 2011-2014, said he initially thought drop boxes were a “terrible idea.” But data and logic helped him change his mind.

Addressing Proctor’s question, Howell said the legislation would take away a secure drop box monitored by election officials who carefully verify every envelope and ballot — and replace it with a mailbox.

“Understand, you’re not solving ballot harvesting,” Howell said. “The motivation is completely illogical to think this is going to solve that problem. It just can’t.”

The term “ballot harvesting” is typically used by election deniers who fear nefarious individuals are somehow producing large numbers of ballots and placing them undetected in drop boxes. In practice, advocacy groups, campaigns and political operatives in Kansas have offered to assist voters by delivering their ballots for them. Kansas lawmakers responded to concerns after the 2020 election by making it illegal for an individual to assist more than 10 voters.

Cille King, of the League of Women Voters Kansas, said volunteers will go to nursing homes, for example, to help people turn in their ballots.

“We want an engaged Kansas,” King said. “We want people to be able to access voting. And when we talk about ballot harvesting, that’s what we tend to call helping your neighbor.”

Davis Hammet
Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, says voting rights should be treated with a special sensitivity. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, which advocates for voting rights, addressed points made by Kobach when he testified in support of the law before a Senate panel earlier this year.

Kobach pointed to voter fraud in North Carolina in 2018, which involved a Republican political operative’s scheme to take ballots from people’s mailboxes, fill them out and turn them in with forged signatures.

“Notably and critically, even in that scheme, they used the United States Postal Service,” Hammet said. “They weren’t using drop boxes. So the entire basis of this doesn’t make sense.”

Hammet also pointed out that a large-scale investigation took place in 2019 in Shawnee County after allegations of ballot harvesting were made. Officials followed up with voters who received assistance, as well as those who failed to turn in their ballots, and found no wrongdoing.

The person who made those baseless allegations, Will Pope, now faces federal charges tied to his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.

Hammet reminded lawmakers that the last time they passed a law based on Kobach’s allegations of voter fraud, Kobach wasn’t able to prove those allegations in court.

“There’s no credible justification,” Hammet said of the proposed ban on ballot boxes. “There’s allegations that can be debunked.”

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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.