By NOAH TABORDA
TOPEKA — A pair of election bills passed by the Legislature to limit advance voting options and restrict the authority to change election law prompted passionate debate in the Senate and House.
House Bill 2183, opposed by voting rights activists, would restrict the number of advance ballots an individual may deliver on behalf of others to a maximum of 10, loosened from five in negotiations. In addition, the measure would remove the authority of the secretary of state to extend the deadline for receiving mail ballots.
The bill also bans candidates from assisting neighbors, friends or family with their ballots.
Rep. Vic Miller, D-Topeka, questioned Republican efforts to target the practice of so-called ballot harvesting — gathering advanced ballots from voters and delivering them to the election office. He said he often assists those in his community who request help filling out and delivering their ballot.
Earlier this year, Secretary of State Scott Schwab reported no abnormalities in Kansas during the 2020 election. Why then is a bill criminalizing candidates and other citizens for assisting one another necessary, Miller asked.
“For decades we’ve referred to it as ‘get out the vote,’ because in my party, we believe in making it as easy as we can for every individual to cast their constitutional rights,” Miller said. “Now you want to make a criminal out of people like me because people like me don’t sit at home and send out mail asking for people to vote for us.”
Senators passed the bill 27 to 11, and within an hour, the House followed suit, 80 to 42.
These measures come amid a nationwide push by Republican-led legislatures who argue increased election security is needed — after they’ve made unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud. In Kansas, this prompted some Democratic legislators and election advocates to raise concerns about the possible voter suppression such measures could cause.
To counter GOP efforts, the Democratic majority in the U.S. House passed a voting rights package in March which expanded mail-in voting and access to the polls. Republican legislators in Kansas urged the state’s delegation in D.C. to reject these proposed changes.
While Miller has remained skeptical of some provisions included in the federal bill, HR1 or the For the People Act, he said changes to election law should be working to raise — not lower — voter registration and turnout.
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, R-Galena, championed several of the voting bills proposed in Kansas, including limitations on candidates interacting with the voting process. He said situations like Miller’s are exactly why these measures are needed.
Hilderbrand pointed to procedure and policy regarding voting in person on Election Day.
“I do not believe as a candidate, I can sit (in the voting booth) and help people fill out their ballot or assist with the process of going through the ballot process,” Hilderbrand said. “If we are not allowed in that process that we should not be doing that outside of that arena as well.”
The penalty for violating the proposed advanced ballot delivery provisions was lowered in the conference committee from a felony offense to a class B misdemeanor.
While he praised the intent to secure future elections, Sen. Jeff Pittman, D-Leavenworth, said Kansas lawmakers were going about it the wrong way. He pointed to partisan election officials and dark-money groups funding campaigns as larger issues needing to be addressed.
“Our focus in on these details is wrong and really restrict a vote of our people out there,” Pittman said. “I understand that desire to make sure no election is stolen, but I also want to fight those elections that are bought, and I think we’re going down the wrong direction.”
House Bill 2332, the second election bill considered late last week, passed in the House 83 to 38 and in the Senate 27 to 11. The bill would amend the law regarding advanced voting ballot applications and require every county election officer to keep the residential and mailing address for each registered voter if they differ.
Sen. Larry Alley, R-Winfield, addressed concerns regarding how this provision would work for people without housing.
“A homeless shelter would be classified as their physical address,” Alley said. “They could receive your mail at a post office box, but the physical address had to be where they spend the night. It could even be in a car, actually, parked at a location.”
Perhaps the most significant section of the bill prohibits the executive and judicial branches from creating new election laws. Rep. Blake Carpenter, R-Derby, said this was in response to changes made by the governor and judicial branch last year during the pandemic.
“If we’re going to pass laws, it should be the Legislature that does so,” Carpenter said, adding the provision would not interfere with the judicial branch’s authority to strike down unconstitutional laws.
While both bills’ restrictions were softened in the conference committee, the effort to advance the legislation did not sit well with Rep. Brett Parker, D-Overland Park. He noted many of the bills had few proponents and those who did testify in support were all sitting legislators.
“What is the point of our process that we go through here, where we let the public come in and testify and — as the opposition from people outside of the building is negative — we still advanced the legislation,” Parker said. “What are we doing? Who are we listening to at that point?”
Both bills will now go to Gov. Laura Kelly. The governor has not said whether she would veto them. If she does, the House vote fell shy of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto.