Voting rights activists fight limits on ‘ballot harvesting’

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Voting rights advocates are battling legislation that would place limits on who can deliver advance ballots to the election office on behalf of someone else.

The bill, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Bill Sutton of Gardner, would prohibit anyone other than a family member or caregiver from delivering a voter’s advance ballot to the county election office or polling place.

The legislation addressing so-called “ballot harvesting” drew stiff opposition Thursday from voting rights’ activists during a hearing that exposed a vulnerability in the bill because state law doesn’t define “family member” or “caregiver.”

Opponents of the bill argued that the proposed law would disenfranchise voters with disabilities, seniors and people of color by making it harder to cast a ballot.

They said the bill would keep neighbors and friends from helping others exercise their right to vote.

“My biggest concern with this is really, why?” asked Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, a civic engagement nonprofit group that’s focused on increasing voter turnout.

Davis Hammet

“Why is this bill necessary? Why is it justified?” Hammet asked.

“I’d keep in mind that a practice that has been legal for decades in Kansas, that many people are accustomed to, you’re about to make it a felony. Think about that. For many people, this is just a habit of how they return their ballot,” he said.

“Now unbeknownst to them your’e going to pass a law that will make them felons, that will strip them of their right to vote, that could send them to jail.”

Sutton described the wholesale collection of advanced ballots as “ballot harvesting.”

He said that allowing anyone other than the voter or immediate family to handle ballots is a “huge opportunity for wrongdoing in the democratic process.”

“Neither voters nor election officials have any way to verify that the secrecy of the ballot has not been compromised or that the ballot submitted contains the votes that the
voter intended,” Sutton said in his testimony.

Bill Sutton

However, under questioning from Democratic state Rep. Vic Miller of Topeka, Sutton acknowledged he wasn’t aware of any impropriety in the handling of ballots by third parties in Kansas.

Miller noted that someone delivering a ballot must sign an affidavit on the outside of the ballot envelope, swearing they are acting according to the voter’s wishes.

He questioned who would be willing to spend time in jail by swearing a false statement on the affidavit of the ballot envelope.

State Rep. Avery Anderson, a newly elected Republican from Newton, raised questions about ballots collected by his Democratic opponent Tim Hodge last fall.

“During my general election campaign, I was made aware of several instances in which my  opponent offered to return citizens’ ballots to the county election office.

“While there is nothing inherently wrong with this – and my opponent wasn’t breaking any state election laws when offering to return these ballots – the situation exposed a grey area that (the bill) will clear up,” Anderson said in his written testimony.

Anderson said the bill would clean up a “murky area” that could potentially lead to election irregularities.

Others saw the bill as turning voting into a potential criminal offense.

“This bill makes felons out of neighbors helping neighbors,” said Kendall Seal, advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

“Under this bill a trusted friend from a house of worship or church could not assist their neighbor with dropping off a ballot,” Seal said.

“It will criminalize volunteers from community service organizations and nonprofits helping to get out the vote.”

The hearing exposed a potential problem with the bill, namely that state election law does not define a “family member” or “caregiver” and it was not known who would verify anyone serving in those roles.

Bryan Caskey, the state elections director for the secretary of state, said his office would have to consult with legal counsel and other appropriate entities to define those roles if the bill passed as it’s currently drafted.

Caskey said more research would have to be done to determine who could certify someone as a “family member” or “caregiver,” but cautioned that county election officials “are election administrators not law enforcement officials.”