As Kansas lawmakers tussle over voting law changes, some election officials are skeptical about efforts

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
Some local election officials have expressed skepticism over a move to alter the state's voting laws, including proposed changes to how advance ballots can be collected.

Almost five months after the November 2020 general election, voting is as hot a topic as ever in the Kansas Statehouse.

The Kansas Senate passed legislation Wednesday that would the state's election laws, which includes a push to tighten restrictions designed to limit individuals from returning other people's advance ballots — something Democrats believe will make it harder for many Kansans to vote.

It comes a week after officials in Georgia formalized a dramatic overhaul of that state’s voting laws and it follows other states in the country that are pondering similar changes in the wake of the 2020 election.

Legislators sparred over election administration in Kansas for more than two hours, with much of the debate centering on the merits of a crackdown on so-called “ballot harvesting,” or collecting and submitting a number of ballots with the intent of subverting election law.

But the latest tussle over Kansas’ election code has left some election officials confused and frustrated.

Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho said the issue of ballot harvesting has been a non-issue in his 10 years on the job.

"I don't see it happening," Piepho said. "Maybe I'm a trusting person, but I believe people are being above board."

The bill would also take a number of other steps, including a ban on election officials from receiving outside grant funding, and could serve as a prelude to bigger changes.

Sen. Larry Alley, R-Winfield, defended the legislation as a way of ensuring confidence in the state's voting procedures.

He noted trust is waning nationally in elections amid a heavily politicized environment  — although members of both parties have agreed voting in Kansas went off without a hitch in 2020.

"We do have a good system in Kansas,” Alley said. “We’re going to make it better with these bills. I want to make sure these elections are secure, are fair and are transparent.”

Democrats raise voter suppression concerns

Under state law, someone who helps a voter fill out their ballot would need to sign the envelope, certifying that they didn't aim to influence the process in any way.

But under the proposed legislation, anyone bringing an individual's ballot to the polls would have to submit a statement where both parties must certify there was no pressure exercised to force a voter to cast their ballot in a certain way.

Candidates for office also could not bring in a resident's advance ballot and no person could return more than five ballots in one election cycle. Violations would be deemed a felony offense.

More:Amid national election controversy, legislators consider voting law tweaks

Critics say the bill makes it harder to vote for working-class individuals, folks with disabilities and senior citizens, as those groups often have a harder time getting to the polls and can lean on others to bring in an advance ballot for them.

"I really do not see a problem except for perception," said Sen. Mary Ware, D-Wichita. "And perception is driven by a lack of information. Instead of making felons out of good neighbors, I think we should be making sure all our voters understand how it works."

Alley acknowledged there hadn't been reports of ballot harvesting in Kansas. But Republicans argued the move was necessary to ensure security measures resemble the ones seen when voters cast ballots in-person.

"By putting the signature on the back, there is that chain of custody. ... If a person goes and sees their ballot wasn't counted, there is accountability," Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, said.

Ban on grant funding baffles county officials

Marion County Clerk Tina Spector was looking for every dime she could to help her office run the 2020 election, with concerns about COVID-19 increasing the cost to keep the polls safe for voters and election workers alike.

That’s where a $5,000 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life helped out. The group, founded in 2015 with the goal of promoting civic engagement and voter participation, doled out similar funds to 23 other Kansas counties.

"It was important last year because everyone's budget was stretched pretty tight. ... We were looking for any grant we could get," Spencer said.

But such a move would be banned under the legislation approved Wednesday, which includes language precluding election officials from seeking outside funding to support their operations.

A sign encourages voters to use a ballot drop box at the Rossville Community Swimming Pool. Legislation moving through the Kansas Senate would make it a felony for individuals dropping off more than five advance ballots.

Using grants and outside assistance to supplement the often tight budgets of county elections' offices is not a new practice. Edwards County partnered with the Center for Tech and Civic Life helped to redo its elections' website in 2017, for instance.

But debate ratcheted up after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $350 million to TCTCL in 2020, prompting concern from conservatives nationwide that the group, and others like it, had political motives in mind.

Critics pointed to a county in northeast Wisconsin, which used its share of grant funding to hire an outside consultant to help with election administration. The operative hired had a history of running Democratic campaigns.

But there is no evidence that similar expenditures took place in Kansas. Sedgwick County used the funds to recruit and train poll workers, hire temporary staff and purchase sanitation supplies, for instance.

In Harvey County, Piepho used a grant to buy election equipment the county was set to purchase anyway — a move which saved taxpayers $45,000, he said.

The county is one of a half-dozen or so in the state that still uses touchscreen machines that don't create a paper record. That equipment is deemed less secure and state legislators have pushed the holdout counties to upgrade, which Piepho said the grant helped them do.

Piepho said there was never any requirement on how the money was spent and he was never asked for an invoice.

"There were no strings attached as far as I’m concerned," Piepho said. “If there were I wouldn’t have taken the money to start with. And even then … there were checks and balances because my (county) commission approved me accepting the money.”

Legislators eye further reforms on mail voting

Looking forward, legislators are also examining ways to tighten the state's advance balloting laws. 

Currently, voters have to postmark their advance ballots by 7 p.m. on Election Day for their vote to be counted, as long as their ballots arrive at the county elections office by Friday, three days later. Voters can begin requesting ballots 20 days prior to Election Day.

More:Amid renewed postal service concerns, Kansas legislators weigh tightening mail ballot deadline

Legislation considered in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee last week would change that, requiring a ballot be received by election officials by the time the polls close on election night. 

Proponents said it was possible for ballots sent after the 7 p.m. deadline to be counted if a postmark lacked a time stamp — something there is no evidence of occurring in Kansas.

But Alley said the tweak was still necessary, especially given debate over absentee voting in other key swing states.

"When is enough enough?" Alley said. "Do we give them two weeks? Do we give them three weeks? Do we give them a year?"

This has raised the alarm for voting rights advocates, who believe that changes to the U.S. Postal Service will continue to delay mail delivery. 

This could particularly impact rural voters, who may have a significant drive to their county elections office and are most susceptible to mail delays.

Davis Hammet, director of the civic engagement group Loud Light, told legislators that data from the secretary of state’s office shows the bill would have impacted more than 32,000 voters in November.

"There is no justification for this bill. I don’t know what the intentions of this bill are but I know the impact will undoubtedly be voter suppression,” Hammet said.

The legislation in a holding pattern temporarily, as members are backing off a plan to shorten the window for residents to request a mail ballot prior to the election. But Alley said Wednesday morning the effort would be renewed when the Senate returns to Topeka next week.