© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kansas' New Law Has Essentially Killed Voter Registration Drives

Elle Moxley
KCUR 89.3
Volunteers register people to vote in 2018.

In Kansas, voter registration groups are suing to stop a new elections law. Some organizations have stopped doing voter drives for fear of charges being filed against their volunteers.

Updated August 24, 2021 at 3:04 PM ET

New state laws tightening voting restrictions come in two basic varieties: those that make it harder to cast a vote, and those making it more difficult to get registered to vote in the first place.

In Kansas, one law effectively shuts down voter registration drives.

Now, it's a felony offense to impersonate an election official and the law creates a vague standard for breaking it, a standard that depends on impressions. It criminalizes engaging in conduct that might seem like something an election official would do.

Davis Hammet, president of the Kansas civic engagement group Loud Light, says that subjective standard would probably include work his volunteers do, which is approaching people with clipboards and registering them to vote.

"So, if someone accuses you of being an election official or saying they were just confused and thought you were one, and you were arrested, you would be charged with a felony," Hammet says. "And so, a felony means you lose your right to vote. So, you could lose your right to vote for trying to help people vote."

So Hammet suspended his organization's voter registration drives, just as they would normally be ratcheting up to register hundreds of incoming college freshmen. Other organizations have shut down in-person registration drives too, including the League of Women Voters of Kansas.

This knocks a big hole in efforts to register new voters, because county elections officials rely on volunteer groups to do outreach.

"I don't have the staff that can go out to fairs and art events and set up a voter registration booth," says Douglass County Clerk Jamie Shew.

Shew says those events and other volunteer efforts are the best way to bring non-voting citizens into the democratic process.

Loud Light volunteer Anita Austin says new voter registrations have slowed.
Frank Morris / KCUR
Loud Light volunteer Anita Austin says new voter registrations have slowed.

Kansas Republicans who pushed the law say shutting down voter registration drives was not their intent. GOP state Sen. Larry Alley says the idea was to stop random actors from cloaking themselves in sham authority through the mail, like sending out fake ballot applications bearing official-looking seals.

There hasn't been a problem with volunteers pretending to be elections officials. And Alley says they can stay out of trouble simply by making their identities clear.

"We want a fair and a secure and a transparent election to make sure that when you cast your ballot, you feel that you cast your ballot and it's going to be counted," Alley says.

Of course, Kansas isn't the only state changing election laws this year. And critics say these Republican-led efforts have less to do with secure voting than they do driving down vote totals for Democratic candidates.

Tammy Patrick has been tracking an avalanche of election-related legislation for the nonpartisan group Democracy Fund.

"There have been a little more than 3,000 bills introduced ... this legislative session and which is the most bills we've seen around election administration," Patrick says. "Many of them actually have included things very similar to the Kansas law."

That's new restrictions on who can register voters, and how forms have to be submitted. Patrick says some new laws even criminalize minor clerical errors sometimes made by elections officials.

In Kansas, voter registration groups are suing to stop the new elections law and have asked for a temporary injunction against enforcing the provision creating a felony offense for appearing to be an election official.

But in the meantime, new registrations have slowed, and Loud Light Program Director Anita Austin is frustrated.

"I'm a Black woman and it matters a lot to me because Black people have been disenfranchised," Austin says, clipboard in hand. "It is common day voter suppression. You know, we used to be able to just say, Blacks can't vote, women can't vote. Nowadays we got to come up with weird laws, like you're impersonating an election official."
An earlier version of this story misidentified Anita Austin as a Loud Light volunteer.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 25, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier web version of this story incorrectly identified Anita Austin as a volunteer with Loud Light. Austin is a paid staffer.
I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.