Judge declines to temporarily block enforcement of Kansas voting law related to who can collect ballots

Andrew Bahl
Topeka Capital-Journal
A Shawnee County judge Thursday declined to block part of a controversial voting law from being enforced, rejecting arguments it could criminalize voter registration events conducted by civic organizations in Kansas.

A Shawnee County judge Thursday declined to block part of a controversial voting law from being enforced, rejecting arguments it could criminalize voter registration events conducted by civic organizations in Kansas.

The ruling came two days after both parties sparred over HB 2183, which contains a range of provisions related to who can collect and return advance ballots, among other items.

That bill is one of two new election laws passed this year under legal challenge from four groups — the League of Women Voters Kansas, Loud Light, Topeka Independent Living Resource Center and Kansas Appleseed — in state court.

Their core objection centers on a provision in the bill that criminalizes impersonating an election official, arguing they have been forced to shut down their efforts to register Kansans to vote over fear they could be charged with a felony. They pushed to block that part of the law from being enforced so they can restart their work as the lawsuit moves forward.

More:Voting groups push for pause on controversial Kansas election law, claiming it has halted their work

Loud Light, which aims to increase civic engagement among young Kansans, said they have stopped voter registration efforts on college campuses as students return for classes, for instance.

But Shawnee County District Court Judge Teresa Watson rejected their core arguments in a 15-page ruling, noting the statute requires an individual "knowingly" misrepresent themselves as an election officer in order to break the law. Because the groups clearly identify themselves as non-governmental bodies, Watson wrote they wouldn't run afoul of the law — even if an individual misinterpreted their purpose.

She said the civic groups "downplay the word 'knowingly' ... almost to the point of ignoring it." She said this also undercut their claims that the law in question is overly sweeping and vaguely written.

"The scenarios described by Plaintiffs in their affidavits do not help them," Watson wrote.

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

Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, said in a text that many of the group's attorneys were celebrating Yom Kipur and the parties would have a fuller response after they are able to review the ruling

The ruling doesn't stop the lawsuit from moving forward. The challenge addresses a number of other provisions in the bill, including a limit on the number of advance ballots an individual can bring to the polls on behalf of someone else.

The legal challenge, filed in June, argues the brunt of the bills 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."

A separate federal lawsuit also takes aim at language limiting out-of-state actors from mailing Kansans applications for a mail ballot, among other items.

Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at abahl@gannett.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.