TOPEKA — Voting rights groups are appealing the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging a 2021 election law they fear will impact voter registration efforts and suppress voters.
The Kansas Court of Appeals declined last month to block the law, which criminalizes impersonation of an election official, among other things. The court ruled the plaintiffs lacked the standing to challenge the unconstitutionality of this law because they did not demonstrate their work was harmed by this provision.
But voting rights groups say they have paused voter registration work for the past year because of the law. In deciding to appeal the decision, the groups argued someone would need to be “arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced to prison” before they could challenge the law under the appeals court majority opinion.
“Kansas voters rely on the league for important election information every year and currently the league in Kansas has paused all in-person voter registration activities, even ahead of our August primary elections,” said Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas. “In a critical election year, we need the court to strike down the law and make it clear that volunteer organizations can register voters without the threat of criminal or civil penalties.”
The League of Women Voters of Kansas is joined by Loud Light, Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center in the appeal. The lawsuit filed by the same groups last year challenged other elements of the bill as well, including limitations on who can deliver an advanced mail ballot and signature verification.
The state has argued provisions relating to the impersonation of an election official require them to act “knowingly.”
The voting rights advocacy groups argue by allowing the law to continue unchecked, Kansas election activities will be undermined. Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, said this would harm civic participation across the state.
“An appeals court judge confirmed our understanding that Kansans can be arrested and charged with a felony for registering voters, yet the majority opted to dismiss the case instead of protecting Kansans and our democracy from the unconstitutional voter suppression law,” Hammet said. “Now, thousands of young Kansans that Loud Light would have registered over the past year will show up on August 2nd to learn for the first time that they needed to register several weeks in advance.”
The groups also cited a new report from Kansas Appleseed on the long- and short-term impacts of voter suppression on the state, which asserts a relationship between low voter turnout and community health outcomes.
The report details how voter suppression creates a negative feedback loop, as elected officials are influenced most by those who cast a ballot, often ignoring people who are unable to vote due to systemic measures. This results in health disparities, feelings of alienation and other negative coping mechanisms, the report said.
An analysis of voter turnout by county in 2016 and 2018, compared to county health outcomes using data primarily from 2020, showed an overall moderate correlation between the two, but the relationship was stronger on the lower end of voter turnout. Only Atchison County, of all counties with voter turnout rates below 57%, had above-average health outcomes.
Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, a lead coordinator for New Frontiers, a youth community engagement project, said there need to be efforts to shift the perspectives of policymakers.
“The system is designed to disengage folks,” Rangel-Lopez said. “It makes folks so tired, so they just finally give up and move on.”
The 2021 law is among a bevy of similar measures imposing new penalties across the country on election officials, or those impersonating them in this case.
In Johnson County, Sherriff Calvin Hayden is requesting that sheriff’s deputies be present at the Johnson County Election Office when ballots are counted during upcoming elections. According to reporting by KCUR, Hayden’s office is investigating fraud in the 2020 election without offering specifics or evidence.
The voting rights groups are hopeful their appeal is successful, looking to Justice Stephen Hill’s dissenting opinion. He said his colleagues’ reasoning makes it hard for the court to stop problematic government action before it occurs.
“This opinion threatens the ability of organizations and individuals to bring challenges to the constitutionality of Kansas laws before their enforcement causes irreparable harm, especially impacting the fundamental right to participate in election activities and to vote, and thus Kansas Appleseed believes it must be appealed,” said Teresa Woody, Kansas Appleseed litigation director.