Bill blocks Kansas counties from sending unsolicited advance ballot applications to voters

Share this post or save for later

GOP senator’s bill criticized as voter suppression, praised as election security

TOPEKA — The organization of Kansas county election officers told legislators Wednesday the membership opposed a Republican-sponsored bill that would prohibit counties from continuing the practice of mailing unsolicited advance ballot applications to registered voters.


Harvey County Clerk Rick Piepho, chairman of the elections committee of the Kansas County Clerks and Election Officials Association, said the state shouldn’t interfere with decisions by counties to distribute advance ballot applications. Contents of Senate Bill 366, introduced by Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, would mandate individuals request applications for advance ballots.

“We believe that individual election offices should continue to have the option, based on the needs of their jurisdiction, to send unsolicited mailings to voters in their jurisdiction that include an advance ballot application,” Piepho said.

In 2020, he said, county election offices across the state mailed thousands of advance ballot applications to potential voters due to challenges with the pandemic. Some counties in Kansas mail every registered voter an advance application prior to elections.

Piepho told the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee that the association of county election officials specifically objected to a provision in Thompson’s bill that would forbid the pre-filling of any portion of an advance ballot application. Counties fill name, address and birth date sections of applications to make certain those parts were legible, given the difficulty of reading handwriting.

Thompson, who chairs the Senate committee, said intervention by the Legislature was necessary because Johnson County election commissioner Fred Sherman, who was appointed by Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab, mailed unrequested advance ballot applications to registered voters. It was inappropriate for Johnson County taxpayers to foot the bill for $130,000 in printing and delivery costs for 417,000 advance ballot mailers, he said.

“This has been called the Fred Sherman bill,” said Charlotte O’Hara, an Overland Park member of the Johnson County Commission and a former GOP House member. She said delays in delivery of mail by the U.S. Postal Service made it necessary for the Legislature to change mail-in voting law. “The security of mail-in ballots and making sure that voters have their votes count is essential.”

Sen. Jeff Longbine, R-Emporia, asked O’Hara if she was urging legislators to get involved in spending decisions by county governments rather than sticking to state government budget issues.

“This is where the buck stops,” O’Hara said of her demand that the Legislature impose robust advance voting application restrictions. “You have to take the responsibility to put it into statute.”

‘Unintended consequences’

In 2021, the Legislature overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly of a bill designed to block distribution of advance mail ballot applications to potential voters. Supporters of the legislation said the action was necessary, in part, because fraudsters stole reelection from President Donald Trump in 2020.

After a federal lawsuit challenged constitutionality of a portion of state law forbidding out-of-state groups from distributing advance voting ballot applications in Kansas, a U.S. District Court judge determined the mandate infringed on constitutional rights of speech and association. The Kansas case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Under Thompson’s bill, county election officials couldn’t mail applications for advance voting unless requested by a registered voter. Senate Bill 366 would prohibit — as of July 1 — county officials from filling out the name, address and birth date sections of applications. The restrictions wouldn’t apply to individuals, advocacy organizations or political parties trying to convince voters to take advantage of the advance voting option.

Another tweak: The font size of text identifying the sender of an advance voting mailer would be reduced from a minimum of 14-point type to a minimum of 12-point type.

The secretary of state’s office said the legislation would have a financial effect on county election offices. A reduction in advance voting could translate into higher turnout on Election Day and costs associated with accommodating in-person voters, said Clay Barker, general counsel in the secretary of state’s office.

Barker said the secretary of state was neutral on the Senate bill, but Schwab did instruct the four election commissioners that he appointed in Johnson, Sedgwick, Wyandotte and Shawnee counties that none should send advance ballot applications in 2024 unless requested by a voter, he said.

“We do, however, encourage the committee listen to the concerns of the county election officers as they are the only public officials tasked with the responsibility to conduct the elections in Kansas and can identify unintended consequences,” Barker said.

Election misinformation

Davis Hammet, who represents the voting rights entity Loud Light Civic Action, told senators Sedgwick County began sending unsolicited applications for advance balloting in 2008. There wasn’t a negative public backlash, he said, because “no one really cared.” He said the 2024 Senate bill should be viewed as a response to election misinformation that gained traction in 2020.

“It appears the only purpose of SB 366 is to coddle Kansans who have fallen victim to election conspiracies and misinformation,” Hammet said.

He said implementation of the proposed “voter suppression” law in July would reduce advance voting and propel reliance on in-person options. The legislation ran counter to Johnson County’s commitment to advance voting and a reduction in the number of polling sites from 213 in 2016 to 144 in 2022, he said.

“While the cost of mailing advance ballot applications may seem high, the cost of additional polling sites, staffing and equipment can be exponentially higher,” Hammet said.

Kelly Wyer and Wallace Boersma, unsuccessful candidates for Prairie Village City Council in November, testified mailers urging Johnson County residents to participate in advance voting was detrimental to their political campaigns.

Both filed for city council to oppose Prairie Village zoning changes encouraging development of affordable housing for working families and the elderly.

“I understand some people need to vote by mail, but it does not need to be so widespread,” Wyer said. “Americans want to feel their vote matters and mail-in ballots are ripe for fraud. We have ballot drop boxes. Are all of those under surveillance with cameras? How do we know there is not ballot harvesting happening with someone signing a mail-in ballot for a deceased person?”

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: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

Don’t miss a beat … Click here to sign up for our email newsletters

Click here to learn more about our newsletters first

Latest state news:


Previous Article

La’Ron Williams named 2024 Lawrence Youth of the Year

Next Article

Kansas governor vetoes ‘reckless’ flat tax proposal