By Letitia Harmon, Policy Director, ACLU of Kansas
As run in The Topeka Capital-Journal
After an 8-year voter suppression experiment here in Kansas, it was great seeing a bipartisan effort in the Senate to restore and expand voting rights by endorsing an Election Day Registration (EDR) bill.
Kansas residents could register and cast a provisional ballot on Election Day under Senate Bill 43, and voters would no longer have to be registered 21 days before the election to participate.
This is the sort of forward-thinking reform we need in a state still smarting from shameful efforts to smother voting rights.
The 19 states with EDR enjoy the nation’s highest voter turnout, posting rates 11 percent to 12 percent higher than other states, including Kansas.
“Citizens want to participate, and they do — once arbitrary voting barriers are removed,” said the ACLU of Kansas’ December report, “All Democracy is Local: The Impact of County Election Officials on Citizen Participation in Kansas Elections.” Available here: www.aclukansas.org.
The report highlighted how local election policies stifle voter turnout and leave Kansas trailing most of the nation in several voting categories:
• Kansas ranked as the ninth most difficult place to cast a ballot.
• Kansas ranked 46ths in voter representation.
• Kansas’ local election officials threw out three times as many ballots as similarly sized states.
The report also revealed that the vast majority of county election officials didn’t believe voter fraud was even a minor concern.
How did Kansas land on these lower rungs of American democracy?
By intentionally complicating voter registration.
“Making voter registration difficult is a highly effective but deeply harmful method of voter suppression,” the report said, adding later, “When a culture that minimizes the importance of citizen participation in elections is cultivated, it saps the strength and soul of our democracy.”
We’ve fought some brazen voting rights attacks here recently.
A U.S. District Court judge in June struck down the Kansas law requiring proof of citizenship for voter registration.
The same month, the ACLU of Kansas sued to stop the interstate “Cross Check” program, which put the voting rights of thousands of Kansans in suspense and produced false-positive matches more than 95 percent of the time.
Last month, an ACLU of Kansas lawsuit forced Dodge City to open two, new polling places inside the city limits. The town had one polling place for 13,000 registered voters and then moved that single site outside the city limits.
Progress, yes. But there’s more to do beyond EDR.
County election officials should do more than count votes. All 105 of them should advocate for greater citizen participation. Success should mean soaring voter registration and steep declines in provisional ballots.
At their worst, county elections officials erect obstacles, underutilize in-person early voting, restrict early voting hours, and offer the minimum number of early voting places.
Johnson County Elections Commissioner Ronnie Metsker, for example, tossed hundreds of provisional and mail-in ballots, kept voters in the dark, then fought in court to keep this information secret. He eventually lost to our client, Davis Hammett of Topeka.
At their best, county election officials could:
• Expand early, in-person voting periods to the 20-day maximum and expand poll access into evenings and weekends (the 60 counties with the longest early voting periods had the highest turnout).
• Expand the number of polling places and ensure fair, geographical distribution of polling locations.
• Begin or expand outreach efforts to underrepresented groups especially younger Kansans, Black Kansans and Hispanic Kansans.
But first things, first. Let’s pass EDR.
Sen. Pat Pettey, D-Kansas City told the C-J, “With today’s technology, there is no reason our election offices can’t handle same-day voter registration.”
What we can’t handle is any more voter suppression.
Letitia Harmon is the policy director for ACLU Kansas.