February 26, 2024

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KS lawmakers anticipate few changes to state election laws

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While Republican lawmakers in several states are preparing legislation to overhaul election processes, Kansas legislators are looking at minor updates to Kansas election laws.

One of the great things about Kansas is that we have really good election laws already,” says Rep. Blake Carpenter, chair of the Kansas House Elections Committee. “We didn’t see a lot of the issues other states saw recently, but there are things we can do to fortify Kansas election laws to prevent the issues we saw in other states.”

That isn’t the case in other states, especially those mired in controversy following the 2020 general election. In states like Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, where Washington officials questioned the outcome, state lawmakers are scrambling to shore up election laws.

An Arizona lawmaker, for instance, introduced legislation to scrap the state’s permanent early voting list. Kansas uses a similar list to mail advanced ballots each election. Meanwhile, in Georgia, a state mired in election controversy after the last election, state lawmakers propose a host of changes to election laws. Peach State lawmakers propose terminating no-excuse absentee voting, and requiring a copy of an ID for absentee voting. They also suggest abolishing ballot dropboxes that receive ballots without a postmark.

Though Kansas lawmakers aren’t planning any major overhauls, they want to learn from other states’ election miscues.

“You’re not going to see any major policy proposals, because in Kansas, it’s working really well. We need to make sure no impropriety occurs going forward,” Carpenter said. “So what you’re going to see are tweaks.”

Lawmakers propose tweaks to Kansas election laws

One proposed tweak, in response to the pandemic, would limit the Kansas Secretary of State’s authority to change election timelines in an emergency. Kansas law currently allows the Kansas Secretary to extend mail-in ballot deadlines unilaterally.

“I don’t think any one individual should have that authority over a statewide election,” says Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican. “I think the legislature should set that date.”

The Secretary of State’s office agrees.

“We do think the current language is too vague,” said Katie Koupal, assistant Kansas Secretary of State. “So the legislature either needs to strike it or provide specific instances when (the deadline) could be extended. We think it needs clarified.”

Proposal would temper potential ballot-harvesting schemes

Kansas lawmakers also are looking for ways to thwart potential ballot harvesting, a practice in which a third party or a political consultant collects mail-in ballots and returns them en masse. A North Carolina Republican operative awaits trial for alleged absentee ballot fraud during the 2016 and 2018 elections. The alleged ballot harvesting scheme threw into doubt the outcome of a North Carolina Congressional election in 2018. The election was never certified and voters filled the seat via a redo special election a year later.

Under Kansas law, it’s a felony to ask another person for their ballot, but it’s difficult to prove which person in such a transaction initiated the contact. One legislative proposal would make it so an individual can only return their own ballot and the ballots of family members to the election office. Another proposal would limit the number of ballots an individual can legally return to a county election office. A third bill would make it a felony to backdate a postmark on a ballot. Prior to 2017, ballot postmarks didn’t matter. State law required ballots be in the county election office no later than noon on election day. 

“Kansas should repeal the bill passed a few years ago that extended the period for accepting ballots after Election Day,” says former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach served as the vice chair of President Trump’s Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity. He also suggests Kansas should reduce the advance voting timeline from 20 days to 14 days and impose a signature verification requirement on the advance ballot envelope itself. Currently, signature verification solely applies to the advance ballot request.

Feds propose nationwide election changes

“All legal votes should be counted and every voter should have the piece of mind knowing that their votes and the elections in the state of Kansas are fair and accurate,” Hilderbrand said. “For the most part they are, but there’s human error in everything. Being proactive as a legislature to look at things that have gaps or holes so we can shore things up, that’s what we should be doing, regardless of what’s going on in other states.”

Other states, however, aren’t the sole concern. The U.S. Congress will consider legislation that requires automatic voter registration, forces states to allow same-day voter registration on Election Day, and prohibits prosecution of individuals who wrongly register ineligible voters.

Federal intervention in Kansas elections is a hard no for Carpenter.

“This is unacceptable,” Carpenter says. “The states still need to maintain control of their election processes.”

Koupal said state and local control of elections provides better election security, and the Secretary of State’s office is pleased with how the 2020 elections played out in Kansas.

“Secretary (Scott) Schwab has constantly reiterated that extreme caution should be used in making any substantial changes to the Kansas elections. We like the current system, and we would strongly encourage lawmakers to preserve it,” Koupal said.

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