Ten Kansas advocacy groups rebuffed by Wyandotte County election commissioner

Coalition puzzled by county official’s attitude on non-English election materials

By: - September 25, 2023 5:19 pm
Voters fill out ballots

Ten advocacy organizations urging distribution of alternative language election materials in Wyandotte County were turned aside by the appointed election commissioner who said he was too busy preparing for elections in November and March to discuss language issues. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Representatives of 10 advocacy organizations expressed frustration Monday the Wyandotte County election commissioner declined to meet with them to talk about providing election materials in languages other than English to voters in the ethnically diverse county.

Judy Ancel, president of the Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity, said the meeting request sent to county election commissioner Michael Abbott followed action in other counties to accommodate minority voters who might benefit from information in foreign languages.

Abbott sent the coalition an email explaining he didn’t have time for a meeting on ballot issues because his office was busy preparing for a November general election and next year’s presidential primary.

“Please keep in mind that we will have a presidential preference election in March of 2024,” Abbott said. “So, following the November election my office will immediately start to work.”

He also said he didn’t possess authority to change “ballot language.” He referred the organizations to Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab’s official website, which included voting information for people not fluent in English. In 2021, Abbott was appointed Wyandotte County election commissioner by Schwab.

Ancel, of Cross Border Network, said Abbott wasn’t prohibited from distributing foreign-language information on election procedures. She said 10 Kansas counties had taken steps to improve voting access for people who spoke Spanish or a language other than English.

“We urge Mr. Abbott to look at the examples of Shawnee, Haskell, Wilson and numerous others who have recognized how providing better language access serves their community’s needs, builds trust, increases voter turnout and boosts election administration,” Ancel said.

Abbott was notified by letter Aug. 24 of the coalition’s interest in dialogue about Wyandotte County providing election materials in multiple languages.

“We were certainly surprised by this denial,” said Leslie Butsch, field organizing director of ACLU of Kansas. “It’s not often that this many organizations and community groups come together on an issue and ask for the same thing.”

The letter to the county election commissioner was signed by ACLU of Kansas, Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation, Cross Border Network, El Centro, Equality Kansas, Latino Community Network, Loud Light, Mainstream Coalition, MORE2 and Voter Network.

Presenting ballots and election materials in the language a person best understood promoted election integrity, said Elizabeth Reynoso, director of community education and outreach at El Centro.

“When the information is not in your language and you rely on others to help translate or explain who is on the ballot, there might be bias and influence over your vote,” she said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.