Kansas governor, secretary of state, voting rights group shared copies of agreement
TOPEKA — Florida think tank lobbyists Madeline Malisa and Stewart Whitson pressured Kansas legislators to use their power to investigate Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly for negotiating a “secret” agreement requiring distribution of voter registration information to recipients of government safety-net assistance.
Representatives of the Foundation for Government Accountability and the FGA’s lobbying arm, Opportunity Solutions Project, told House and Senate members during an election integrity hearing Thursday that Kelly participated without consent of the Legislature in “backroom deals” with nongovernment organizations for the alleged purpose of broadening registration of likely Democratic voters in Kansas.
“These deals are hidden from the public as well as this Legislature until they are disclosed by others months or even years after the secret deal has been made,” said Whitson, legal director of the Foundation for Government Accountability in Tallahassee, Florida.
He recommended the Republican-led Legislature use its authority to compel Kelly to release a copy of the negotiated compromise with Kansas voting rights advocacy nonprofit Loud Light, the New York racial equity organization Demos, ACLU of Kansas and the ACLU’s national Voting Rights Project.
“We don’t have a copy,” Malisa said. “I think it would be a great question to the Kelly administration to provide a copy of that. You want to know what’s in there, right? The only information we have is from the press releases. The devil’s in the details. What’s in there?”
However, during the legislative committee’s lunch break separate copies of the consent decree were provided by written or oral request to the Kansas Reflector by the office of the governor, the Secretary of State’s Office and the executive director of Loud Light. Each request was filled for free and the copies were delivered by email.
Brianna Johnson, a spokeswoman for Kelly, said the governor’s office entered into the settlement to make certain Kansas state agencies followed federal laws on the books for 30 years. Kansas Reflector reported on the agreement in 2021.
“We have been transparent about this agreement from the start, sharing publicly how expanding opportunities to register to vote will help all Kansans — regardless of political affiliation — exercise this important right,” Johnson said.
‘Never been revealed?’
The document outlined details of a 2021 agreement that involved negotiations with the Kelly administration to resolve deficiencies in state compliance with mandates in the National Voter Registration Act and to avoid protracted voting rights litigation. The settlement prompted two state agencies, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Department for Children and Families, to participate in a program informing people of opportunities to register to vote. The agencies sent information about registering to about 275,000 recipients of public benefits.
Brenda Wright, interim director of legal strategies at Demos, said at that time in a news release the agreement was a victory for Kansas residents who would have “more access to voter registration and greater opportunity to vote and enjoy full participation in the democratic process.”
Rep. Paul Waggoner, a Hutchinson Republican on the interim election committee, asked Malisa and Whitson at the conclusion of their prepared testimony to clarify whether contents of the consent agreement between the governor and potential litigants had never been disclosed.
“It’s never been revealed to anybody?” Waggoner asked. “There’s not a copy? We don’t actually know even exactly what she agreed to. Is that correct?”
“We’ve not seen a copy,” Malisa said. “No copy has been publicly released.”
Malisa also recommended the Legislature seek involvement of Attorney General Kris Kobach, a Republican, for an inquiry of how Kelly might use the consent agreement to influence voter registration and election outcomes in the 2024 cycle. She said the consent agreement appeared to be valid through June 2025.
“Those are questions I think that need to be answered by the attorney general who should have a seat at the table,” Malisa said.
Democrats not a monolith
Sen. Mike Thompson, the Shawnee Republican who chairs the interim elections committee, said he was concerned how the state would respond if evidence emerged Kelly or anyone else was engaged in an illegal voter registration operation.
“It sounds like there have been or it sounds like this scheme may have been fruitful,” he said. “What do we do about registrations that have filed under illegal circumstances?”
Democratic Rep. Brandon Woodard of Lenexa, who also serves on the election committee, said it was frustrating Opportunity Solutions Project was attempting to attach words such as “scandal” to the Kansas governor.
He questioned testimony of Malisa and Whitson that indicated people receiving government assistance, such as food stamps, were most likely to vote for liberal candidates rather than conservatives.
“We just had a group say, ‘If you are a welfare recipient, you’re probably voting for Democrats,’” Woodard said. “People on public assistance are not a monolith. If that were true, everyone on Medicaid or Medicare would be voting for Democrats.”
Whitson and Malisa said the administration of President Joe Biden issued an executive order that would make use of federal tax dollars to encourage people to register to vote. They asserted Demos, which was involved in negotiations on the Kansas settlement, was involved in the Biden administration’s use of third-party groups to conduct a voter-registration campaign capable of benefitting Democrats more than Republicans.
“Election integrity isn’t about just stopping fraud,” Whitson said. “It’s also about inspiring confidence in the outcome of elections.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.