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Voting rights advocates sue over 2 new Kansas election laws

June 2, 2021 GMT

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Two national nonprofit groups that encourage voting by mail sued Kansas election officials Wednesday over new election laws passed this year by the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature.

The lawsuit from VoteAmerica and the Voter Participation Center comes a day after three Kansas voting rights groups — The League of Women Voters of Kansas, Kansas Appleseed and Loud Light — sued in Shawnee County Court.

Both lawsuits contend the laws are unconstitutional because they suppress free speech and disenfranchise voters.

The federal lawsuit seeks to block enforcement of a law that prohibits out-of-state groups from mailing advance ballot applications to any voter in the state and makes it a crime to include the voter’s name, address and other information on the application, even if the voter provided the information and requested an advance mail ballot application.

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Paul Smith, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, one of the legal groups representing VoteAmerica and the Voter Participation Center, said the Kansas law is one of several passed by state legislatures this year aimed at restricting the right to vote.

Debra Cleaver, founder and CEO of VoteAmerica, said state lawmakers who pass such laws prefer lower turnout elections that allow them to dictate who can vote.

“And now they want to want to block nonpartisan charitable organizations like VoteAmerica from simply helping voters — regardless of their political affiliation — request mail in ballots. It’s intentionally voter suppressive, it’s undemocratic, and that’s why we’re suing,” Cleaver said.

One provision of the law targeted by the Kansas lawsuit limits how many ballots groups or individuals may collect and deliver to election officials, a practice used by some Democrats and Democratic-leaning groups for decades to help disabled, elderly and poor voters. The second law reduces the power the governor, secretary of state and courts have to change election laws.

The lawsuit filed in Shawnee County District Court asks the court to find the laws unconstitutional and to prevent them from being enforced.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the bills in April but the Republican-led Legislature overrode the veto last month.

Republican supporters of the measures say they are needed to ensure the integrity of elections by preventing fraud.

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, described the Kansas-based groups that filed the lawsuit as “left-wing groups who are opposed to securing our elections.”

“The fact that they are challenging modest limits on ballot harvesting and rules against impersonation of an election official demonstrates how radical these groups are,” Masterson said in a statement.

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The voting rights groups contend Republican supporters of the new laws have presented no evidence that Kansas elections are not secure.

Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a defendant in the lawsuit, who says Kansas had “free and fair” elections in 2020, declined to comment on the lawsuit before his office had been formally served, The Wichita Eagle reported.

Clinton Bales, a spokesperson for state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, another defendant, said his office learned about the “political” lawsuit from reporters and had not yet been served.

“Kansans can rest assured we will vigorously defend the commonsense election integrity measures enacted into law this year,” Bales said.

Davis Hammet, founder of Loud Light, a state voting rights organization, said he told lawmakers before they voted that the laws would pose constitutional concerns.

“When you make up a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist you make new problems,” Hammet said. “The legislature responded to a lie and used it as the basis for disenfranchising Kansans in the name of improving election integrity.”

One law makes it a misdemeanor for someone to collect and return more than 10 ballots or “give the appearance of being an election official.”

Hammet said he and other Loud Light volunteers have been mistaken for election officials in past elections.

“We’re all nervous that if we go out and do these activities can we go to jail?” he said.

The lawsuit also contends a $20 advance voting application fee would harm low-income voters, and a method used to match signatures on ballots would cause voters to be “disenfranchised as the result of inexpert and arbitrary decisions by elections officials.”