Kansas voters with disabilities blocked by restrictive legislation, voting rights advocates say

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TOPEKA — Kansas voting rights advocates say legislation passed over the past two years hurts disabled voters and voters of color in Kansas, diminishing their ability to cast ballots in the November election.

Ami Hyten, executive director of the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center, said she was concerned about the effect of 2021 legislation on disabled voters, highlighting House Bills 2183 and 2332.

She spoke Thursday at a meeting of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ Kansas Advisory Committee on voting rights concerns in the state.

HB 2183 made it illegal for one person to deliver more than 10 advance voting ballots on behalf of other voters. Hyten said this restriction made things more difficult for her organization, which works to make the voting process easier for disabled voters.

Since many disabled people live in community settings, she said collecting 10 or more ballots wasn’t unheard of for her organization. This method of collection is now prohibited under state law.

The bill also makes handling a voter’s ballot a misdemeanor for people who aren’t election officials, unless it’s on behalf of a family member. The bill prohibits people from delivering advance voting ballots on behalf of other people without a signed written statement and also requires signature verification for advanced voting ballots.

HB 2332 requires voters to have a residential address meeting certain requirements, without which the voter cannot be registered.

Hyten said these requirements pose huge obstacles for disabled voters.

“It’s important to understand that the bills passed by the 2021 legislature have a cumulative impact in building a culture where particularly for Black and brown disabled people, even the most routine or mundane of life activities is criminalized or subjected to penalization,” Hyten said. “We are being asked to participate in an activity that we have to fight to get access to in the first instance, that has implications on questions about our own capabilities and capacity.”

Another major concern highlighted Thursday was the effect of redistricting.

The Kansas Legislature redrew congressional and state legislative maps in early 2022, as part of the redistricting process that occurs every 10 years, based on updated Census results.

Legislature Republicans approved the maps, ignoring objections from Democrats and voting-rights groups who called the new maps racially biased and drawn in an attempt to disenfranchise voters of color and lessen Democratic influence.

“The plan that was ultimately adopted was a gerrymander in the worst sense of the word,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. “One that directly contradicted the views expressed by many residents who were able to participate in the comment period.”

“The new congressional map very definitely disenfranchises communities of color, reduces the political power of communities of color, and does so with willful intent,” he added.

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The new congressional map moved the diverse northern part of Wyandotte County out of the 3rd District into the 2nd District, and took Democrat-leaning Lawrence out of Douglas County, placing it into the heavily conservative 1st District, which extends to the Colorado border.

Critics say the map divided the Kansas City metro area to make it more difficult for the state’s only Democrat in Congress, U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids, to win reelection. 

Several voting-rights advocacy groups, including the ACLU, filed lawsuits on behalf of Wyandotte County and Lawrence residents concerning the new map. Wyandotte County District Court Judge Bill Klapper found the congressional map unconstitutional, but the Kansas Supreme Court reversed Klapper’s decision in May.

Kubic said communities of color were now feeling the effects of that decision.

“Voters of color, especially in Johnson and Wyandotte counties, have been able to craft electoral alliances with white voters to elect a candidate of their choice,” Kubic said. “The new congressional maps make that outcome much less likely, intentionally redrawing communities of color into districts where those alliances are unable to produce a voting majority.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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