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OVERLAND PARK, KS -- A group of county-level Kansas election officials, most notably Ronnie Metsker of Johnson County, is trying to undermine nonpartisan efforts to help voters by leveling false claims of "electioneering."
Metsker's office has even begun training Johnson County poll works to view the voter assistance efforts with suspicion.
A recent State Attorney General decision, however, has reinforced what the ACLU of Kansas has said all along about its nonpartisan voter support program Election Protection – that the network of hotlines and on-site poll observers serve as a resource to any citizen experiencing problems at the polls on election day.
While asserting the authority of election boards over individual polling places, an Attorney General opinion has determined that the Election Protection program does not constitute so-called “electioneering.”
“It is our opinion that the mere presence of a person offering non-partisan voter assistance, or signage advertising such assistance, within 250 feet of the entrance to a polling place, does not constitute unlawful disorderly conduct,” wrote Attorney General Derek Schmidt.
The ruling, handed down late last month, comes at a time in which a handful of County Clerks and polling site authorities incorrectly have accused the nonpartisan Election Protection program of hotlines and poll observers of unlawful interference and campaigning.
Ellen Glover, director of field operations for the ACLU of Kansas, welcomed the AG’s Election Protection clarification.
“We don’t know why some of the county clerks and poll workers are so opposed to people getting help when they encounter problems voting, but the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline, as well as the observers we deployed during the primary, simply ensure that eligible citizens' votes are counted,” Glover said. “We do not want to influence what voters choose on the ballot. We know our democracy is stronger when all eligible citizens are able to participate.”
Still, some county clerks continually have viewed the ACLU's voter support effort skeptically.
In Johnson County, for example, election officials appear to be training poll workers that ACLU Election Protection signs with the 1-866-OUR-VOTE phone number should be treated as electioneering if posted within 250 feet of a poll entrance.
When the poll worker asked whether that meant t-shirts or other items with this same information, the worker said the trainer said yes, but ultimately left the answer ambiguous. The worker then reached out to the ACLU of Kansas on her own, seeking clarification.
Incidentally, while Election Protection efforts have met resistance in Johnson County, “MAGA” or “make America great again” hats are allowed at Johnson County polling stations.
But some county clerks, such as Tabitha Lehman, Sedgwick County’s election officer, have demonstrated sincere concern about the rights of voters. Jamie Shew in Douglas County as well as Donna Patton in Reno County are two other bright spots of voter advocacy across the state.
In anticipation of greater voter turnout for the Nov. 6 general election, the ACLU is leading a more robust, statewide, Election Protection Hotline effort.
The nonpartisan project, in partnership with the Kansas City law firm Stinson Leonard Street, LLC, will feature nearly 30 lawyers providing live, real-time assistance for citizens encountering difficulty voting—nearly double the number of lawyers on hand during the August primary.
“Voting is one of the most important things we do as citizens, and we want to make sure that all eligible voters get to exercise this sacred right,” said ACLU of Kansas Executive Director Micah Kubic. “Citizens actually participating makes our democracy stronger.”
The Election Protection Hotline is more relevant than ever. Kansas voters likely will need some clarity following confusion regarding provisional ballots and mail-in ballots.
The hotline fielded more than 100 calls during August’s primary, and virtually all of them were resolved.
Hotline callers can ask voting-related questions or report problems encountered while attempting to vote. Hotline lawyers will help voters with questions and assist election officials in resolving issues. Calls are logged in a database, tracked for trends, and followed up when necessary.
The hotlines are nonpartisan and all voters are encouraged to call the hotlines.
· 866-OUR-VOTE provides assistance in English – administered by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law;
· 888-VE-Y-VOTA provides bilingual assistance in English and Spanish – administered by NALEO Educational Fund;
· 888-API-VOTE provides assistance in Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Begali, Hindi, Urdu and Tagalog – administered by APIA Vote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).
Hotline calls will be answered live on Nov. 6, 2018. After-hours calls are directed to voicemail and promptly returned.
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About the ACLU of Kansas: The ACLU of Kansas is the statewide affiliate of the national American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU of Kansas is dedicated to preserving and advancing the civil rights and legal freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights. For more information, visit our website at www.aclukansas.org.