Voting rights advocates file dueling lawsuits arguing new Kansas election laws are unconstitutional

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
A coalition of advocacy groups have filed suit in opposition to two laws approved by the Kansas Legislature last month, arguing they are unconstitutional.

A dueling coalition of advocacy groups have filed separate legal challenges in opposition to two laws approved by the Kansas Legislature last month, arguing they violate the Kansas Constitution by making it harder for residents to vote and infringing on their free speech rights.

One lawsuit, filed Tuesday evening in Shawnee County District Court, alleges the two bills "impose a myriad of unjustifiable and needlessly oppressive roadblocks" and impede the efforts of voters, election officials and "even good Samaritan friends and neighbors who want to assist their fellow citizens in effectively exercising their most fundamental right."

The two bills, HB 2183 and HB 2332, contain a host of provisions, including a limit on the number of advance ballots an individual can bring to the polls on behalf of someone else.

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A separate federal lawsuit, filed Wednesday by a suite of national voter participation groups, takes aim at language in HB 2183 limiting out-of-state actors from mailing Kansans applications for a mail ballot, as well as a provision banning advance ballot applications from being sent if information is already filled out on them.

The bills also mandate election officials match the signatures on an advance ballot to a person's voter registration record, a practice which already occurred in many counties previously.

Republicans cited the need to ensure safe and secure elections, despite the fact that there were no known instances of fraud in Kansas. That includes a clampdown on so-called ballot harvesting, or the mass gathering and return of ballots.

'These burdens will not fall equally on all Kansas voters' 

But the state-level advocacy groups, including the League of Women's Voters, Loud Light and Kansas Appleseed, countered that the state saw historic turnout in the 2020 election — something they believe would be overturned by the bills.

They maintained, for instance, that limiting a person from gathering absentee disproportionately harms Kansans with disabilities, residents of rural areas and those without access to transportation. 

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They also argued the signature matching mandate would almost certainly lead to an increase in absentee ballots being tossed out. Meanwhile, the limits of out-of-state mailers and a provision criminalizing any person who impersonates an election official could hinder the free speech rights of legitimate groups, they contend.

"These burdens will not fall equally on all Kansas voters," the lawsuit argues. "Instead, they will make it far harder for specific communities, namely Kansas’s senior citizens, minorities, young voters, disabled individuals, and rural residents, to cast their ballots."

Federal lawsuit seeks to block law's implementation 

The federal lawsuit echoed many of these arguments and sought a preliminary injunction halting the HB 2183's implementation.

The national groups, including the Campaign Legal Center and VoteAmerica, say the ban on out-of-state groups from mailing advance ballot applications runs afoul of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The language, the lawsuit argues, limits the groups from mailing the applications and "employing their most effective means of persuading voters to engage in the democratic process."

Both bills were initially rejected by Gov. Laura Kelly, but lawmakers met last month to override her vetoes on largely party-line votes.

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A spokesperson for the secretary of state's office, which is listed as a defendant on the suit, declined comment, saying they haven't yet been served. 

Clint Blaes, a spokesperson for Attorney General Derek Schmidt, said their office "learned about these lawsuits from news reporters" but vowed to "vigorously defend the common-sense election integrity measures enacted into law this year."

Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the groups involved were "left wing" and "opposed to securing our elections."

"The fact they are challenging modest limits on ballot harvesting and rules against impersonation of an election official demonstrates how radical these groups are," Masterson said in a statement.

Kansas is the latest state to see litigation over voting laws passed in 2021. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, an advocacy group in support of expanded voting rights, 21 cases have been filed in 10 states in this year alone.

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The most high-profile fights have been in Georgia, where lawmakers pushed significantly more aggressive legislation. That law mandates photo ID for voting by mail and gives voters less time to return their ballots going forward.

Meanwhile, legislators in Texas have temporarily backed off a similar measure, although it is likely to return in a special session later this year.