Nonprofits Argue That New Law Disenfranchises Voters

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — Two national nonprofit groups argued Wednesday that a new Kansas law prohibiting out-of-state groups from mailing advance ballot applications disenfranchises voters, but the state countered that the groups’ mailing efforts led to a flood of duplicate applications during the 2020 presidential election.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil issued no ruling on VoteAmerica and the Voter Participation Center's request for a preliminary injunction against the law. Both sides will return to court on Oct. 8 to finish making arguments in the case.

The law that is the focus of the litigation was one of two voting laws that were passed this year over the veto of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. It also makes it a crime to include the voter’s name, address and other information on advance ballot applications, even if the voter provided the information and requested an advance mail ballot application.

Tom Lopach, president and CEO at the Voter Participation Center, said there is a higher response rate when the group prefills the applications. He said the group's goal is to make it “as easy as possible to engage in Democracy."

Nearly 70,000 Kansas voters submitted an advance mail voting application provided by the Voter Participation Center to their county election official in the 2020 general election, the lawsuit said.

Daniel McCarthy, of Vote America, said that sending out partially prefilled applications helps to “reduce the burden" on would-be voters and reduces the chance for errors.

But state and county election officials testified that the flood of applications led to confusion, with many voters repeatedly requesting mail-in ballots.

Bryan Caskey, the state’s elections director, said that when county election officials get duplicate requests it “dramatically increases the amount of time it takes to process an application.” In some cases, election workers have to call would-be voters to sort out the mess and make sure voters only cast one ballot.

In the Topeka area, there were nearly 3,000 duplicate applications for mail-in ballots submitted, with one person turning in seven of them, testified Andrew Howell, the Shawnee County Election Commissioner.

He said his office received a flood of phone calls from confused would-be voters and that it was a “significant burden" to sort out the duplicate applications, estimating that it cost $25,000 to $30,000.

Johnson County, meanwhile, received 30,000 to 35,000 duplicate applications, said former Johnson County election commissioner Connie Schmidt. She said a “large quantity" of them had information prefilled using the same typeface.

Vratil though observed in questioning the witnesses that the 2020 election was rife with confusion. Many states made it easier to request a mail ballot amid the coronavirus pandemic and concerns about crowded polling places on Election Day. But stories about U.S. Postal Service delivery delays were in the news in the lead-up to the election.

“The whole integrity of the system was a topic of discussion," she noted.

Meanwhile, a separate case filed again three Kansas voting rights groups — the League of Women Voters of Kansas, Kansas Appleseed and Loud Light — is pending in state court. One provision of the new law targeted by that lawsuit limits how many ballots groups or individuals may collect and deliver to election officials, a practice used by some Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups for decades to help disabled, elderly and poor voters.

Several other states also pushed ahead this year with efforts to tighten voting laws. The details of the bills vary state to state but follow a similar pattern of making it harder for people to vote by mail or absentee. While voters of both parties have long used those methods to cast ballots, Democrats were more likely to vote remotely in 2020 — a fact that has spurred the GOP crackdown.

Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a defendant in the lawsuit, said previously that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that narrowed the scope of Civil Rights-era federal Voting Rights Act sends a strong message that states can take steps to secure their elections.