Kansas lawmakers weigh restricting mail voting and drop boxes. Could bills pass this time?

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Nationally, ballot drop boxes have become the latest lightening rod in the battle over election security, with the receptacles targeted by conspiracy theorists with baseless conspiracy theories.

But someone forgot to tell the residents of Wabaunsee County.

The spark plug-shaped territory presents real problems for administering elections, County Clerk Abby Amick said. And residents there are increasingly used to voting via the county's four ballot drop boxes — without the consternation that has emerged nationally.

Election officials chose to position the drop boxes not just in the county seat of Alma but in the furthest reaches of Wabaunsee County, whose spark plug-like shape can make traveling within the county uniquely difficult.

Driving from Harveyville to the county elections office, for instance, can take up to 40 minutes. Amick said, despite the national firestorm, residents have had almost uniformly positive reactions to the tools, finding they ease the burden on those who are often are older and would otherwise be unable to get to Alma.

"They are concerned that the mail just won't get here or certainly won't get here on time. And they don't have the means to drive into Alma," Amick said. "Drop boxes are, they feel, a safe and effective alternative to the mail or having to make a special trip."

Lawmakers are again examining an overhaul of how Kansas conducts advanced voting.

For the third year in a row, some lawmakers are pushing to end the three-day post-election window that mail ballots have to reach the county elections office, even though that measure was voted down in a Kansas House committee in 2022.

A pair of proposals are also floating around that would set new regulations on ballot drop boxes, including potentially restrictive ones.

But despite a 2022 general election that officials generally agree went off without a hitch, legislators in support of these changes are trying again, arguing changes are needed to boost confidence in elections.

"To the extent that we still have people that I think are concerned over whether or not we have fair and free elections, we need to address those concerns and make sure that we at least listen to those and see where we can go with them," said Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, chair of the Senate committee that handles election bills.

This driving force, opponents argue, remains lawmakers and constituents who have been swayed by baseless allegations of fraud, nationally and in Kansas, despite the repeated assertions of the secretary of state that voting in the state is secure.

"When you have public figures at the federal and now local level — this sort of big lie is impacting Kansas as well —spreading misinformation, of course we're going to instill doubt or fear among the public," said Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, the top Democrat on the House Elections Committee.

More:Audits, voting machines and TikToks: Mistrust sparks GOP race to be Kansas' top election official

Ballot drop box fight set to heat up again in Kansas

The fight over ballot drop boxes is not a new one.

Legislation introduced last year would have also sharply curtailed the receptacles. Meanwhile, their use was a key flashpoint in the Republican primary between Secretary of State Scott Schwab, who has vouched for the security and utility of dropboxes, and challenger Mike Brown, who vowed to push to outlaw them.

Brown and others have cited debunked claims that the boxes allow individuals to drop off fraudulent ballots unchecked, as individuals in other states have mobilized to film or patrol drop boxes in a move that critics call voter intimidation.

Attorney General Kris Kobach is championing an effort to ban election drop boxes.
Attorney General Kris Kobach is championing an effort to ban election drop boxes.

And Attorney General Kris Kobach also opposed ballot drop boxes on the campaign trail, arguing they make it more difficult to enforce the state's ban on a single individual returning more than 10 ballots at a time and saying he would like to see them banned.

"If you have all of these drop boxes, there's really no way to effectively enforce that law," Kobach told reporters at a news conference last week.

Statewide, 167 drop boxes were used in the 2022 general election, according to data provided by Schwab's office. Sedgwick County had 16, while 19 counties opted not to use any, though many smaller, rural counties had at least one or two.

In Wabaunsee County, many of the county's residents commute to work in Topeka or Manhattan, so voting on Election Day can be a challenge.

In the 2022 election, 90 voters in the county returned their ballots via the four drop boxes. While that may not see like a high number in the context of the 977,000 votes cast across the state, it accounts for roughly a quarter of all mail ballots returned countywide.

Changes to the system, said County Clerk Amick, would be a big deal.

"It does cause ... a disenfranchised voter in a rural setting that doesn't have an opportunity to drive to their county seat when we're so spread out," she said. "And we're in an incredibly rural, fairly low income and elderly population on fixed incomes and they just can't always make extra trips."

House Bill 2057, considered Tuesday by the House Elections Committee, would only allow one drop box for every 30,000 residents in a county, a move that would confine all but nine counties to one box for their entire area.

Boxes would only be unlocked during the operating hours for election offices and staff would need to monitor it during that time or have continuous video surveillance that would need to be stored for one year and provide footage that shows a person's face.

County elections officials say these items would be either prohibitively expensive or logistically impractical to implement.

"You want a person standing outside?" Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho said. "That person isn’t a law enforcement office so what would they do even if they saw a violation?"

But Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Fort Leavenworth, chair of the House Elections Committee, said he was inclined to advance a separate bill, House Bill 2053, that would merely allow Schwab's office to craft regulations on the issue, if they chose.

Deputy Secretary of State Clay Barker supported that effort, whereas Schwab's office was opposed to the larger drop box overhaul.

Allowing Schwab's office to craft regulations would allow uniformity statewide and protect county elections officers, as well as better providing for their input, he said. It also would be a way of ensuring voter confidence concerns were heard.

"This is a way of addressing that," Barker said.

But some advocates believe that is an opportunity for future secretaries of state to alter the regulations in a way that limit drop-box access.

Lawmakers again consider changes to mail voting timeline

Legislators are also set, for a third year in a row, to consider ending the three-day post-election window for mail ballots to reach the county elections office.

Provided a ballot was postmarked on Election Day, it will currently be counted if it arrives by the end of the day of the Friday following the election.

Proponents believe the move will align Kansas more closely with their peers nationally. Presently, 17 states have a so-called "grace period" of three days or longer.

Advocates of House Bill 2056 also argue any potential changes to results from late arriving mail ballots undermines trust in elections.

"Allowing ballots to be received days after the election causes delays and delays sow doubt," said Madeline Malisa, a visiting fellow with Opportunity Solutions Project, a Florida-based, conservative interest group, and the lone individual to testify in favor of the bill.

But results on Election Day are always unofficial until they are certified at the county and state level.

While Schwab's office is neutral on the bill, Barker noted that providing election night results is a "public service." Provisional ballots are adjudicated later and some ballots requested to be hand-counted aren't tabulated until the weekend following the election, he said.

There is some debate over how many voters might be affected. Testimony last year from Schwab's office said the 2020 election, which saw an unusually high volume of mail voting, saw 31,000 ballots arrive on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday following Election Day.

For voting in the November 2022 election, Schwab's office estimates the number of affected voters was much smaller, perhaps about 1,000 mail ballots.

Opponents of the bill argue the unpredictable nature of the U.S. Postal Service means that voters who plan ahead of time and send their ballot in with a week or more to spare still could be subjected to delays because Kansas mail must go out-of-state to be processed.

"If the voter did everything right, making sure it was in the mail by Election Day, then the state should do everything in its power to make sure the vote is counted," Davis Hammet, director of the voter engagement group Loud Light, told the House Elections Committee.

'It does cause … a disenfranchised voter in a rural setting'

A similar bill was rejected by the committee last year over concerns regarding its impact on rural areas — but that was before a different slate of members were appointed for the 2023 session.

But on Tuesday, lawmakers advanced HB 2056 on a 7-5 vote. Rep. Ken Collins, R-Mulberry, joined his Democratic colleagues in opposing the bill.

When asked via a spokesperson if changes on the committee were intended to help advance voting proposals that had failed previously, House Speaker Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, didn't say. But lawmakers, he said, should "never grow complacent and we must continue to stay ahead of the curve."

"Kansas has some of the most secure elections in the nation, but we have an obligation to the people to ensure all our bases are covered when it comes to keeping our elections safe and secure," Hawkins said.

Rep. Jesse Borjon, R-Topeka, who formerly worked in the secretary of state's office, voted against the three-day grace period bill last session but was not appointed to the committee in 2023.

"In my two years on the election committee, we asked folks to bring us factually based information if they were aware of voter fraud or something that was occurring with our elections that was not legitimate," Borjon said. "And let me tell you how many folks came forward with that type of information: Zero. There weren't facts to back up what the claims were."

The bills face an uncertain future. Thompson, the senator from Shawnee, said he had not yet decided which voting bills he wanted to prioritize but noted the drop box issue would likely be examined.

Anything approved by the Legislature would likely be met with the veto pen of Gov. Laura Kelly, requiring a higher level of support among Republicans that might be difficult given past concerns from rural members.

Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Fort Leavenworth, listens to testimony in the House Elections Committee Tuesday on a bill that would allow the secretary of state's office to develop ballot drop box regulations.
Rep. Pat Proctor, R-Fort Leavenworth, listens to testimony in the House Elections Committee Tuesday on a bill that would allow the secretary of state's office to develop ballot drop box regulations.

But Proctor, the House Elections Committee chair, said he felt it was important to be proactive and not wait for a security threat to emerge, saying on "September 12, 2001, I bet people really wished they have locked cabins on airplanes on September 10 but it was too late."

For lawmakers, he said, "Voter confidence is as important as election security."

"Using the method of calling people conspiracy theorist nuts only pours gas on the fire," he said. "I think that solution has failed and I think we need to find a way to bring these folks back into the fold and improve voter confidence. Our system is doomed if half of the electorate believe our elections are fixed or have concerns that they believe aren't being addressed."

This article originally appeared on Topeka Capital-Journal: Amid 'big lie' concerns, Kansas lawmakers consider voting restrictions