‘Line too far’: National civic engagement groups sue over new Kansas election laws

Just months after their passage, new Kansas election laws are being challenged in federal court on First Amendment grounds by national civic engagement groups.

The Campaign Legal Center filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging a provision that bars out-of-state organizations from sending advance ballot applications to Kansans and another that regulates the content of applications sent by in-state groups.

The laws were approved last month as part of a larger package of state election changes. They also come amid a nationwide push by Republicans to tighten ballot access following unfounded claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.

The complaint was filed in federal district court for Kansas against Secretary of State Scott Schwab, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe on behalf of Vote America and the Voter Participation Center.

It comes the day after state voting rights organizations filed a suit in Shawnee County District Court alleging provisions in the same bill and another elections measure passed last month violate the state constitution.

Schwab’s office declined to comment and Howe did not immediately respond to The Star’s request for comment.

In a statement Clint Blaes, a spokesman for Schmidt, said his office had learned about the “political” lawsuit from reporters and had not yet been served.

“Kansans can rest assured we will vigorously defend the common-sense election integrity measures enacted into law this year,” Blaes said.

In addition to his work as Attorney General, Schmidt is currently running for Governor of Kansas.

The federal suit alleges that the laws violate free speech and equal protection guarantees as well as the Commerce Clause of the U.S. constitution by preventing out-of-state groups from producing advance ballot applications.

The laws are “vague and overbroad” and have the potential to eliminate entirely the groups voter engagement work in Kansas, attorneys argued. This elimination, they said, is occurring even though Kansas had no election security issues in 2020 while seeing record turnout driven by mail in voting.

Debra Cleaver, founder and CEO of Vote America, said the laws essentially sought to criminalize her organization, which provides voter resources nationwide.

“This is certainly a line too far,” she said. “This is what it looks like when a country systematically moves toward authoritarianism.”

Republican-controlled states across the country imposing laws that could make it harder to vote. According to the Brennan Center, Kansas is one of 14 states that has imposed new restrictions on voting this year.

Cleaver called the Kansas lawsuit an attempt to head off more severe restrictions.

“When you let people take these steps without repercussions, they take further steps and that’s not hyperbole. In the 16 years I’ve been doing this, every year it gets harder to vote,” she said.

The Kansas measures were passed as part of House Bill 2332, approved by the Legislature last month over Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto.

The bill also included provisions limiting the authority of the state’s executive and judicial branches over elections. It was passed alongside another measure limiting mail in voting.

Opponents denounced the bills as “voter suppression” that needlessly makes voting more difficult. Republican lawmakers, however, said they were designed to prevent future issues in Kansas elections.

Overall, experts said the bills offered more moderate limits on voting than the wide ranging policies sought in Georgia and Texas. But Asseem Mulji, Legal Counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said Kansas is unique in banning all activity from out-of-state organizations rather than simply dictating how that messaging should be delivered.

Kansas, he said, had some of its most successful elections on record this year, supported by civic engagement groups that distributed ballot applications.

“Voters will ultimately have access to far less information about how to access a ballot and how to cast their votes,” Mulji said.

“The 2020 election had a cloud of issues over it but none of those actually seem to be implicated by the problems that the Kansas Legislature believes exists and is trying to solve here.”