With chilling routine, Topeka continues to punch out ways to make voting more difficult if not impossible. A generation ago, state legislators – Republicans and Democrats alike – encouraged the mail ballot, advance voting, extended deadlines. They embraced ways to encourage more citizens to vote.
Not anymore. In the waning days of the 2021 session, Republican majorities in the House (87-38) and Senate (29-11) voted to override Gov. Laura Kelly’s vetoes and adopt bills that limit the capacity of seniors, the disabled, people of color and rural residents to obtain ballots and cast votes.
Among other new restrictions, one measure restricts the number of advance ballots (ten) that can be delivered on behalf of others, such as the home-bound, the aged or infirm.
It also strips the secretary of state of authority to extend mail ballot deadlines.
Another requires local election officers to maintain residential and mailing addresses for each voter if they differ – a new burden for both voters and election officials. The squeeze on voting in Kansas seems a mild echo in the nationwide Republican push to parrot unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, then demand increased election security.
Among the 42 other states enacting new restrictions, Arizona and Georgia lead the way, removing ballot boxes, loading up new ID requirements, clamping down on early voting, among other restraints.
Kansas has been there already. We’re only tamping out what’s left.
In 2002, the lone polling site in Dodge City (pop. 27,000) was opened at the Civic Center in a wealthy part of town. In 2018, officials moved it out of the city to a facility more than a mile from the nearest bus stop. That single polling site, for 13,000 voters, was to serve ten times the average 1,200 voters at other Kansas polling places. The ACLU sued, then dropped the lawsuit a year later, after Ford County established two polling places and provided free bus service to the locations.
In Barton County in 2018, some voters faced the chore of heading 18 miles to their closest polling site. Officials there cut the number of polling places by more than half, from 23 open during the August primary to 11 for the general election.
Meanwhile, voting in Kansas had been under a grinding, eight-year assault from – of all people – the state’s chief election officer, Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Voter suppression in Kansas, with minorities a special target, was not limited to Dodge City and Barton County. Squeezing out the undesirables was Kobach’s mission. He was elected (2010) and reelected (2014) for his vows to cleanse the electorate, for his delusions that “illegal aliens” threaten to take control of our elections. He led Trump’s infamous voter fraud commission which found no hint of fraud; degraded, it dissolved. He has been shamed for his courtroom incompetence by a federal judge. A failed gubernatorial campaign (2018) put his sordid public career on pause, and Kobach is now running for state attorney general. He once called the ACLU and the League of Women Voters “a bunch of communists.”
We recall the ghosts of Kobach’s Jim Crow laws featuring separate but unequal ballots for minority voters; his stringent ID requirements; his Prairie Fire political fund to sluice money to loyal politicians. Some of this has been squelched in federal court. But the tactics favoring discrimination are alive today, layered into new laws that suppress a freedom to vote.
Kansas has joined the Republican march in dozens of states to throttle the act of voting, brazen efforts that recall ante bellum America during the end of Reconstruction. At Topeka this year, reluctant legislators were muscled into signing on under threat of a primary election opponent from the furthest right and softened up with the ploy that these laws are not as bad as Georgia’s.
These bills were not about election integrity. The 2020 election in Kansas was secure. Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, has said the Kansas election is held as a model by other states studying ways to improve voter engagement and election security.
Elections in Kansas were once celebrated for their inclusion, for election officers who worked to increase turnout. Then came the platform to increase voter absence, to purge the electorate of its messy, subordinate ranks.
Democracy itself can be messy ‒ especially in Kansas, where so many are welcome to live but not to vote.