by Tim Carpenter, Kansas Reflector
February 22, 2023
TOPEKA — The Kansas Senate debated four election bills Wednesday banning use of ballot drop boxes, setting a tighter deadline for mail-in advance voting, permitting candidates for local nonpartisan offices to add party affiliation to ballots and compelling write-in candidates to affirm their candidacy three weeks before an election.
Shawnee Republican Sen. Mike Thompson, among legislators fueling skepticism about election security in Kansas, presented Senate Bills 208, 209, 210 and 221 as necessary to improve efficiency, transparency and public confidence in the state’s voting system. Each gained traction despite repeated assurances by Secretary of State Scott Schwab, the state’s top election official, that voting was fair and secure in Kansas. Final votes on the bills should occur Thursday, but all were expected to pass and move to the House.
Thompson, chairman of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, pointed to alleged irregularities with voting in Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan during the 2020 election won by President Joe Biden to justify reform in Kansas. He said voting was a privilege and people had a responsibility to work within the framework of state law to participate in elections.
He said one example of needed change was folded into Senate Bill 209, which would halt acceptance of mail-in advance ballots at the moment polls closed on Election Day. It would repeal the grace period for ballots postmarked by 7 p.m. on Election Day but not arriving for up to three days.
“Late-arriving ballots threatened veracity of the count,” Thompson said. “I think by drawing lines and saying, ‘This is the end where we accept these ballots,’ actually increases the confidence that we have election integrity in the state of Kansas. It just lends credence with the whole process.”
Several senators raised questions about the legislative package touted by Senate GOP leadership, arguing the bills would disenfranchise the elderly and disabled people as well as individuals serving in the military and college students who rely on advance voting options.
“There is no issue being addressed here except to alienate people,” said Sen. David Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City vexed by consideration of a no-excuses 7 p.m. deadline for advance ballots.
Sen. John Doll, a Republican from Garden City, proposed an amendment initiating in Kansas ranked-choice voting. Under his proposal, voters would rank their preferences among all candidates for an office. The approach takes relies on second-, third- and fourth-choice votes to reach a 50% majority for the winning candidate. There was no vote on the amendment, however, because it was ruled not germane to the bill at hand.
Two amendments sought by Sen. Caryn Tyson, R-Parker, were likewise ruled out of order. One of those would have required hand counts of final election results.
Banning drop boxes
In its original form, Senate Bill 208 would have rationed ballot drop boxes in Kansas to a maximum of one per county, whether that was Johnson County with more than 600,000 residents or Greeley County with 1,200 people. The bill was crafted so the lone box for advance ballots would be placed inside the county election office. That box would be continuously monitored by two people of different political parties during office hours.
Tyson, the Republican, offered an amendment banning use of drop boxes statewide. It passed 22-16, with Republicans and Democrats voting against it.
“I rise in strong support of voter integrity,” Tyson said. “Drop boxes allow for the possibility of foul play.”
Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, said there was no question prohibiting the state’s 105 counties from relying on drop boxes for convenience of voters and election officials would deter Kansans from casting ballots. She said advocates of the reform didn’t appreciate some of their constituents were unable to personally go to the poll to vote. She said champions of the bill were the type of people who threatened her for opposing repressive election legislation.
“I’ve been getting threats. That’s why I wasn’t here this morning,” Faust-Goudeau said.
Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said a drop-box ban and the 7 p.m. deadline on advance ballots would serve to undermine participatory democracy.
“The two bills would create a very difficult situation for voters to return their ballots,” Francisco said.
No more grace period
Under Senate Bill 209, the three-day grace period for mail-in advance ballots would be repealed. That state law creating that buffer was adopted in 2017 by votes of 40-0 in the Senate and 123-1 in the House. It was a response to service changes by the U.S. Postal Service that were expected to slow mail delivery.
The Senate bill would set a hard deadline for all advance ballots at 7 p.m. Election Day, Thompson said. If the same provision had been in statute during the 2020 election, it would have blocked counting of 32,000 ballots statewide.
“When do we draw the line and say, ‘Election Day is over?’” Thompson said. “That’s what this bill is intended to do. It gives everybody the same finish line.”
He said 30 states required absentee ballots to be received by election workers on or before Election Day.
Doll, the Garden City Republican, said the uncertain pace of mail delivery argued against ending the three-day grace period. He said a letter mailed to his neighbor across the street in Garden City was processed at a Wichita postal station. In Elkhart, local mail was sent to Amarillo, Texas, for processing. And in Tribune, local mail was forwarded to Denver for sorting.
“It would seem to me that if we had election fraud, that it would be all over the newspapers,” Doll said. “This bill is unnecessary.”
The objective of Senate Bill 210 was to nullify city ordinances and county resolutions forbidding candidates for nonpartisan offices from including their party affiliation on ballots. Passage of the bill would let candidates for school board or city offices voluntarily have their political party membership displayed on ballots after July 1, Thompson said.
Sen. Jeff Pittman, a Democrat serving Leavenworth, said enactment of the bill would preclude federal employees from being candidates for local office because the 1939 Hatch Act limited political activity of federal government employees.
“We have some fantastic people that are either retired military or current federal government workers who fill some important roles,” he said. “I feel like they contribute to our community and public service and this would disenfranchise a lot of folks in my community.”
Thompson said this bill was about transparency in terms of partisan loyalities. He speculated a small number of Kansas residents with federal jobs would be blocked frome serving in elective offices.
“They self-eliminate on this particular situation. If they decide they want to take a job that is funded federally in part or in full they do so at will,” he said.
Under Senate Bill 221, write-in candidates for state and local elections would be required to file an affidavit before the election to confirm interest in seeking nomination and election to that office.
Write-in votes wouldn’t be counted if candidates for the Legislature, state Board of Education, district or magistrate judge, district attorney, county offices and first-class city offices failed to submit an affidavit at least three weeks from Election Day. It wouldn’t apply to township elections, Thompson said.
Thompson said the bill made sense because it would allow election workers to stop counting frivolous write-in votes for Fred Flintstone, Superman and others.
“Bottom line: This is a bill to make the life of our election officials and the secretary of state much easier during elections,” Thompson said.
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