A state judge on Monday upheld parts of a new election law that placed limits on how many ballots can be delivered by a third party to an election office and imposed signature requirements for advanced ballots sent by mail.
Shawnee County District Judge Teresa Watson dismissed claims that the signature verification requirement and the so-called “ballot harvesting” restriction violated the state constitution by interfering with voting and the freedom of speech and association.
Watson, appointed to the bench by former Gov. Sam Brownback, did not rule on a provision in the law that made it illegal for someone to knowingly falsely give the appearance of acting as an election official.
She also did not rule on a separate challenge to a ban on any person not a resident of Kansas from mailing an application for an advance voting ballot to a voter. A similar lawsuit was brought in federal court and the state agreed not to enforce the ban.
An attorney for the plaintiffs in the case said Watson’s decision would be appealed.
“The district court decided that the state’s interest in preventing nonexistent election fraud outweighs Kansas voters’ rights to vote and exercise of political free speech,” said lawyer Teresa Woody.
Watson upheld two other provisions in a new state law, including one that limited to 10 the number of ballots third parties can collect and deliver to election offices on behalf of someone else.
Republicans said the process of collecting large numbers of ballots – called “ballot harvesting” – was ripe for abuse and the measure was intended safeguard elections.
The lawsuit said the restriction severely burdened the right to vote by “significantly limiting the pool of individuals who can assist voters in delivering their completed ballots to election officials.”
The lawsuit said that as “fewer people are available to collect and deliver Kansans ballots, Kansas will face greater obstacles casting them and some may not be able to cast them at all, including plaintiffs’ members and constituents.”
The lawsuit – brought by the League of Women Voters of Kansas, Loud Light, the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center -says the law hurts seniors, minority voters and voters with disabilities.
They contended that since there was no evidence of voter fraud in Kansas, the need for limits on ballot collections were unnecessary.
But Watson found that the government didn’t need to demonstrate that fraud existed to justify taking steps to prevent any kind of wrongdoing.
“To the extent that plaintiffs argue that there is a need in certain communities for help in collecting and delivering ballots, the need may still be met,” she wrote.
Watson noted that the U.S. Supreme Court last year upheld a more restrictive law in Arizona that made it a crime for any person other than a postal worker, an elections official, or a voter’s family member to collect an early ballot before or after it has been completed.
“The government’s regulatory interests are important and justify the (ballot collection restrictions), which are reasonable, nondiscriminatory restrictions,” she wrote.
The restrictions, Watson ruled, do not violate various provisions of the state constitution, including the freedom of speech and association in the Bill of Rights.
Watson also upheld a ban on county election officers from accepting advance voting ballots sent by mail unless they verify that the signature on the ballot envelope matches the signature on file with the election office.
The lawsuit contends that there is no standard for matching signatures, leaving it up to each county election official to decide how to verify the signatures.
The civic engagement groups argued that the requirement imposed such a severe burden on advanced ballot voters that it robs them of their right to vote.
Watson noted that county election officials are required under state law to give any advance voter whose signature is missing or is in question the opportunity to fix the problem before election results become official.
She also said that voters with disabilities are exempt from the matching requirement if they can’t create a signature that matches one in the election files.
Further, Watson said that anyone who is ill or has a disability and cannot sign the ballot can get help from a third party.
“The court concludes that the provisions of the (signature verification requirement) are reasonable, nondiscriminatory restrictions, which are outweighed by the state’s compelling interest in the integrity of its elections,” she wrote.
She also rejected the plaintiff’s claims that signature requirement violated voters’ right to due process because it allowed for ballots to be thrown out without adequate procedures in place to match signatures.
But Watson said there is no federal constitutional right to vote by mail, which is an option provided for by state law.
Watson said she was not persuaded by the plaintiffs citing a “smattering” of federal cases from other jurisdictions in which once a state offers vote-by-mail option, it gives rise to a “liberty” interest.
“More compelling is the defendant’s argument that the right to vote by mail does not implicate a protected liberty or property interest under the federal and state constitution,” she wrote.
“The state-created option to vote by mail does not give rise to a protected liberty interest” under the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights, she wrote.
“Without such an interest, there is no entitlement to procedural protections and thus no need to analyze whether the protections provided are adequate,” she ruled.