Voting groups push for pause on controversial Kansas election law, claiming it has halted their work
A group of civic engagement organizations argued Tuesday that a Shawnee County judge should halt controversial voting laws enacted this year, saying it is substantially harming their operations and speech rights ahead of the November municipal election.
Their objection centers on two election laws that took effect earlier this year amid a nationwide effort in Republican states to tighten voting laws. The groups — led by Loud Light, Kansas Appleseed and the League of Women Voters Kansas — filed suit over the matter in June, arguing the laws violated the Kansas Constitution.
Lawyers for the groups later filed for a temporary restraining order, blocking implementation part of one of the laws — House Bill 2183 — until a fuller ruling could be made on the case. The group's main argument stresses that their voter registration activities puts them at risk for prosecution under a provision in the bill which criminalizes impersonating an election official.
In arguments Tuesday in Shawnee County District Court, Hal Brewster, one of four attorneys representing the coalition, argued the legislation has brought the operations of the affected groups to a screeching halt.
Civic engagement groups stopped voter registration efforts
Loud Light, which aims to increase civic engagement among young Kansans, had to stop voter registration efforts on college campuses as students return for classes and the League of Women Voters made a similar decision.
Brewster argued this was especially dangerous in light of the upcoming November elections for local offices. And he pointed to heightened tensions in the wake of the 2020 elections are making the danger of prosecution all too real for the groups.
"In the political environment we’ve seen, particularly in the aftermath of the 2020 election, people’s perceptions about elections and elections officials be wildly incorrect," That is the exact danger that we have here, where people’s perceptions could lead to criminal prosecution.”
But Bradley Schlozman, a private attorney representing the state on the matter, noted the language of HB 2183 only applies if an individual is knowingly aiming to represent themselves as an election official.
Absent that, the objections from the groups filing suit amounted to nothing more than a "manufactured crisis." He likened it to a resident fearing that giving their amateur legal opinion would put them at risk for practicing law without a license.
"They are saying 'Gee, no matter how hard we try there may be individuals in the community who confuse us for an election official,'" Schlozman said. "That is not illegal."
Attorneys differ on whether attorney general would prosecute
While Schlozman argued there was no threat of imminent prosecution at a state level, Brewster noted that local district attorneys could take it upon themselves to charge local activists.
And he argued there will be a new attorney general next year who could have a different interpretation of the statute, with current Attorney General Derek Schmidt running for governor.
Schmidt and Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez have already sparred over the issue, after Valdez said her office wouldn't prosecute group or individuals under the law.
Schmidt's office hit back with a statement that he would uphold all voting laws, even if local officials didn't, but Schlozman clarified that there was no intent to prosecute anyone who wasn't knowingly impersonating an election official.
The two bills at issue contain a host of other provisions, including a limit on the number of advance ballots an individual can bring to the polls on behalf of someone else. A separate federal lawsuit also takes aim at provisions limiting out-of-state actors from mailing Kansans applications for a mail ballot.
Shawnee County District Court Judge Teresa Watson said she would have a ruling on the restraining order "very shortly."
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 443-979-6100.