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US judge blocks Kansas law on mailed ballot applications

November 19, 2021 GMT

BELLE PLAINE, Kan. (AP) — A federal judge ordered Kansas on Friday to suspend a new law prohibiting out-of-state groups from mailing advance ballot applications, siding with two national nonprofit groups that contend it disenfranchises voters.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil granted the preliminary injunction against the law sought by VoteAmerica and the Voter Participation Center. She also rejected the state’s efforts to dismiss the lawsuit.

Vratil noted in her ruling the critical constitutional issues that still need to be decided in the case, finding that the public interest “leans in favor” of preliminarily blocking the law. She also wrote that the voting rights groups are likely to succeed in the lawsuit on their claim that the state law restricts their ability to engage in protected First Amendment activity.

The law that is the focus of the litigation was one of two voting laws that were passed this year over the veto of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. It also makes it a crime to include the voter’s name, address and other information on advance ballot applications, even if the voter provided the information and requested an advance mail ballot application.

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Vratil found that the voting rights organizations produced evidence of significant burdens associated with the state law, while state officials provided “almost no factual basis” for disputing the groups’ claims that the new law will drastically limit the number of voices advocating for the “politically controversial topic of voting by mail.”

The judge said the law will have the inevitable effect of reducing “the total quantum of speech on an important public issue.”

Kansas argues the law prevents voter fraud because it limits the number of advance ballot applications that each Kansas voter may receive, contending that when a voter receives more than one ballot application it invites fraud. It argues fraud may affect the outcome of a close race and undermine confidence in the fairness and legitimacy of elections.

“Defendants’ argument has superficial appeal, but it actually boils down to an issue of administrative efficiency,” Vratil wrote. “The state employs a rigorous process to make sure that no voter can receive a duplicate mail ballot. Apparently, these procedures are highly effective.”

Alice Huling, one of the attorneys representing the voting rights groups, said in an emailed statement that the court’s ruling prevents anti-voter provisions from taking effect in January.

“This means nonpartisan, nongovernmental organizations like VoteAmerica and Voter Participation Center will be able to continue helping Kansans to vote by mail during the 2022 election cycle,” Huling said. “VoteAmerica and Voter Participation Center helped tens of thousands of Kansans to vote in 2020, helping to achieve historic turnout in the state. They will now be able to provide these necessary voting resources to Kansas voters again in 2022.”

A spokesman for Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt said they are reviewing the ruling.

Nearly 70,000 Kansas voters submitted an advance mail voting application provided by the Voter Participation Center to their county election official in the 2020 general election, the lawsuit said. The nonprofit groups argued that sending out partially pre-filled applications helps to “reduce the burden” on would-be voters and reduces the chance for errors.

But election officials have testified that the flood of applications led to confusion, with many voters repeatedly requesting mail-in ballots.

For the 2022 election cycle, the Voter Participation Center plans to send registration mailings to roughly 70,000 Kansans, communicating with these voters every three to four months before the November election, according to the ruling.

In a separate state lawsuit challenging a different voting provision, Shawnee County District Judge Teresa Watson in September allowed the state to keep enforcing a new election law.

Watson denied four groups’ request to temporarily block the law, expressing strong doubts about arguments that it hinders efforts to register and educate Kansas voters. The groups, including the League of Women Voters of Kansas and the voting-rights organization Loud Light, are challenging a provision making impersonating an election official a felony.