Kansas Republicans want election rule changes that could give them an edge over Democrats

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Kansas Republicans are considering the removal of a three-day grace period for returning ballots by mail and creating runoff elections for statewide races. Democrats and voter turnout advocates say they are voter suppression efforts.

TOPEKA — Just months after Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly won a second term, Kansas Republicans have begun floating two bills that would change how the state runs its elections.

If one of the bills had been law last year, it would have led to a runoff election after Kelly eked out a slim victory over Republican Derek Schmidt with a plurality instead of an outright majority of the vote. It would force the top two candidates in a statewide general election race into a two-person showdown if neither got more than 50% of the vote.

The other bill proposes eliminating a three-day grace period for advance mail ballots to be returned and counted. That could cut down some of the votes cast through the mail. Democratic voters use mail-in ballots more often than Republicans.

Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said the bills are likely attempts to give Republicans, the dominant political party in the state, an edge.

“Both parties,” Miller said, “like to have laws that favor them and that make winning more likely. Let’s be upfront about that — election laws are political.”

In recent years, Republican lawmakers and voter integrity groups have argued the changes would make elections in Kansas fairer and safer. The proposed bills also follow a nationwide effort from Republican-dominated states to restrict access to voting since then-President Donald Trump pushed unsubstantiated voter fraud claims after he lost the 2020 election.

Democratic state Rep. Brandon Woodard speaks during a committee  hearing on a bill that would create runoff elections in Kansas.
State Rep. Brandon Woodard, the highest ranking Democrat on the House Elections Committee, said the changes to elections in Kansas amount to voter suppression.

Democrats and voter turnout groups oppose the bills. State Rep. Brandon Woodard, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Elections, said the proposals make it harder to vote in Kansas and are the result of conspiracies that elections have been stolen.

“This is just another voter suppression effort from folks who believe in the Big Lie (about supposed election fraud),” Woodard said.

Runoff elections

State Rep. Les Mason, a Republican from McPherson, proposed the creation of a runoff election to ensure whoever is elected to a statewide position is supported by a majority of voters.

“Kansans deserve,” Mason said, “to have that confidence in whomever we install in that office that a majority of the public supports them.”

With a runoff election, a candidate would need to earn more than 50% of the vote to be the winner. In the event that a three-way race splits the votes with no candidate winning more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates head to another election.

That would likely be common in races that feature more than two candidates. For instance, the last three elections for governor featured multiple candidates and a winner with less than 50% of the vote.

This past fall, Kelly defeated Schmidt with 49.5% of the vote. Republicans believe Kelly’s victory was boosted by rogue conservative state Sen. Dennis Pyle, who left the GOP to run as an independent candidate. He challenged both Kelly and Schmidt from the right, arguing both are liberals.

Miller said the perception of Pyle taking conservative votes away from the mainstream Republican is likely leading lawmakers to make changes that they believe would favor their party. Additionally, some Republicans believe Kelly’s 2018 victory over Republican Kris Kobach benefitted from Greg Orman’s independent bid that year. She’s been elected governor twice, without getting a majority either time.

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But data shows Orman likely took votes away from Kelly, not Kobach, Miller said.

“There’s certainly those people who misperceive that Laura Kelly has only won two gubernatorial elections because of an independent candidate,” Miller said. “They’re wrong, but some of those people have the power to introduce legislation.”

Voter turnout groups opposed the legislation and suggested the state consider ranked-choice voting instead. That’s a form of election where voters rank their choices between candidates. A winner is decided through an instant runoff decided by those ranked preferences and only requires voters to cast a ballot once.

Woodard also noted that Georgia, a state with high-profile runoff elections in recent years, is looking to scrap the system.

Critics also cite the cost of holding a second election. The Kansas Secretary of State’s Office, which oversees elections, estimates a runoff election would cost the state an additional $6 million. But county election offices would be responsible for those bills.

Mail ballot deadline

The proposal to eliminate the three-day grace period renews scrutiny on voting by mail in Kansas. Republicans proposed its elimination before, with the Kansas Senate advancing a bill last year.

Republican state Rep. Pat Proctor speaks to an House committee on elections.
Republican state Rep. Pat Proctor, who chairs the election committee, suggested eliminating the three-day grace period would boost public confidence in elections.

The most recent proposal would only allow mail ballots to be counted if a county election office receives them by 7 p.m. on Election Day. Currently, ballots returned through the mail are counted if they are postmarked by Election Day and received within three days after polls close.

Madeline Malisa of Opportunity Solutions Project told the committee that eliminating the grace period would boost confidence in elections and produce faster election results.

“Mail-in ballots that arrive three days after an election,” Malisa said, “can undermine voter confidence in the outcome, especially in cases where a close race suddenly flips after Election Day.”

Republican Rep. Pat Proctor, chairman of the committee, said increasing public confidence in elections through the change is a good policy decision.

But some lawmakers questioned if ballots would be thrown out for no fault of the voter. Rep. Kenneth Collins, a Republican from Southeast Kansas, said one of his constituents told him she couldn’t mail her ballot until the weekend before Election Day, but she was confident it would be counted because of the grace period.

Many opponents of the bill also said the change would disenfranchise specific voters. Some military voters stationed overseas may cast ballots by mail, but sometimes have the ability to vote through email.

Woodard said in an interview the bill would restrict voting rights for Kansans who rely on mail ballots, like rural residents and Kansas voters who are out-of-state.

“This is disenfranchising folks that are away from college,” Woodard said. “This is people whose mail systems take a little bit longer because of where they’re located.”

Dylan Lysen reports on politics for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @DylanLysen or email him at dlysen (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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