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Under threat of prosecution because of Kansas’ new election laws, the state’s League of Women Voters has stopped organizing voter registration drives.

A strict ID requirement — left to local election officials to interpret — prevents some people from voting at the polls. If a voter casts their ballot absentee instead, the state’s subjective signature matching requirement could lead to its rejection, often without recourse.

Depending on where they live, a Kansas voter could be forced to travel great distances under a limited timeframe to participate in the state’s early voting process. Others live in communities where they have the luxury of night and weekend early polling place hours, postage-paid envelopes for absentee voting and multiple drop box locations in their community.

Black and Latino voters, students and people with disabilities are disproportionately disenfranchised by limits the state’s Republican-dominated legislature has enacted and the deep disparities in voting access that stem from local discretion over a range of election functions.

“Those equity issues are pronounced in ways here that people don’t think about,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

He noted the outside perception of Kansas as rural white farm country. “The reality is that the state is much more diverse than that,” he said, with a significant portion of the state’s population living in the Wichita and Kansas City areas.

“Democracy isn’t just about voting rights, pulling a lever for your candidate. It’s the idea that everyone matters, that we’re in it together. Attacks on democracy are attempts to exclude people and cast them out from society,” Kubic said. 

Kansas was at the center of national debate this summer over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to leave reproductive rights up to individual states with the reversal of Roe v. Wade. On Aug. 2, turnout surged for a special statewide referendum in which Kansas voters handily rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed abortion to be banned.

Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, a nonprofit that promotes youth civic engagement, said that polling showed 75% of voters ages 18-34 opposing an abortion ban with virtually none undecided.

“Voter suppression laws over the past few years have overwhelmingly tried to block young people, new voters, from voting,” he said. “Those were voter suppression bills pushed by the anti-abortion groups explicitly … in an attempt to make sure it passed.”

The state had one of the most restrictive voter registration laws in the country to begin with. Unlike states that allow registration up to the last hour polling places are open, the deadline in Kansas is three weeks before Election Day. 

Loud Light helped register 10,000 new voters in Kansas ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Hammet said. 

But a new law that took effect last year expands the definition of impersonating an election official, subject to prosecution as a felony, to be so broad that Loud Light, the League of Women Voters and others stopped registering voters altogether.

Michael A. Smith, professor of political science at Emporia State University, posted a link to the state’s online voter registration application platform on the site he uses to communicate with students about classes, but he paused first to make sure he wasn’t violating the new law.

“Some of these things blow up on their proponents because they give so much publicity to the thing that it incentivizes more people to register,” Smith said. “An example would be college students. … They’re so fired up they don’t need a registration drive to get registered.”

About this series

This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

Local disparities and subjective ballot rejection

Kansas allows early in-person voting. And anyone can request an absentee ballot without an excuse and return it by mail or at a limited number of secure drop boxes in the state.

But much of the scope and implementation of that system is left to the discretion of Kansas’ 105 counties.

Hammet said whiter communities with more resources are more likely to offer the maximum time allowed by the state for early voting, provide numerous drop boxes for the return of ballots and spend money educating residents about their options for voting. 

In more diverse communities, Hammet said, early voting options tend to be limited, and instead of providing postage-paid envelopes, some places won’t even fold absentee ballots, requiring a voter to find a bigger envelope, pay $1.50 for postage and make a trip to the post office. 

Dodge City, where the population is about 64% Latino, in the past has had only one polling location for the entire community of 28,000. In 2018, it was infamously moved 4 miles outside the city limits, requiring many to take a bus in order to vote. It expanded to two locations in 2019.

In high-turnout elections like the state’s abortion ban referendum this summer or the 2020 presidential election, the lack of resources a county has or which communities it chooses to invest in can disenfranchise people of color and lower-income voters who give up on long lines at the polls.

“People were waiting three to four hours on Aug. 2, mostly in diverse communities, mostly in lower-income communities,” Kubic said, while voters in white communities typically faced short lines or no wait at all because they had so many more options both on Election Day and beforehand.

Funding of elections is left up to individual communities. In 2020 some turned to grants from a foundation created by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to supplement the cost of early voting and provide “hazard pay” to make sure there were enough poll workers in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Accepting such private funding to support the cost of elections was made a crime by the Kansas legislature last year. Numerous Republican-controlled states did so, following a national copycat legislation effort fueled by right-wing conspiracy theories about Zuckerberg.

“It’s a coordinated, sustained campaign,” Kubic said. “It’s not a whole bunch of people spontaneously coming to the conclusion that they should do this.”

A new requirement in Kansas that signatures on absentee ballots match signatures on file in county election offices introduces another point of subjectivity that could be interpreted differently depending on where you live. In other states, signature matching requirements have been found to disproportionately impact the elderly and voters with disabilities and have led to ballots cast by Latino voters were four times more likely to be rejected than other voters.

“The onslaught of election bills we’ve had the past two years is just really intense,” Hammet said. 

Kansas voting rights advocates have had success mounting court challenges to past restrictions, such as former Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s law requiring proof of citizenship to vote. They’re back in court now challenging the new signature-matching requirements and restrictions on organizing voter registration drives.

If advocates weren’t willing to sue, Kubic thinks the legislature might have passed “more aggressive attacks” on the right to vote.

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Matt DeRienzo is editor-in-chief of the Center for Public Integrity. Previously, he was vice president...