TOPEKA, Kan. — Republican lawmakers in Kansas are joining GOP colleagues nationwide in trying to tighten voting laws, advancing a measure Wednesday that would make it harder for churches, civic groups, neighbors and candidates to collect and return absentee ballots for voters.
The state Senate gave first round approval to a bill that would make it a felony for someone to deliver more than five absentee ballots for other people to election officials. Candidates would be limited to delivering ballots for immediate family members.
Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature argue that they're trying to prevent "ballot harvesting," particularly by candidates or campaign workers. They have presented no evidence that the state's policy that allows someone to deliver an unlimited number of ballots for others has resulted in fraudulent voting.
The Kansas measure is part of a wave of Republican-backed election bills introduced in states after former President Donald Trump stoked false claims that fraud led to his 2020 election defeat. Kansas already had strict voter ID laws, though a federal appeals court last year struck down a requirement that new voters provide citizenship documents when registering.
The vote Wednesday set up another, final vote, and the Senate expected to pass the measure and send it to the House, given its GOP supermajority. House approval could come as early as next week.
"What we're talking about here is voter suppression, nothing less," said Democratic state Sen. Mary Ware, of Wichita.
Advocates for voting rights and the disabled argue that the measure on absentee ballots would make it less likely that disabled voters or older voters living in nursing homes would get their ballots delivered.
The Kansas Senate's debate came less than a week after Georgia's Republican governor signed new voting restrictions into law, including a ban on outside groups handing out food or water to people in line to vote.
In Kansas, absentee ballots are known as "advance" ballots. Voters have until three days after the election to return ballots by mail. They also can deliver them to local election offices in person or have them delivered by family members, neighbors, churches, care givers, civic groups or even candidates themselves.
GOP lawmakers have cited the case of former Democratic state Rep. Tim Hodge, of North Newton, who won his 2018 race by only 88 votes, before losing his 2020 contest by a wide margin. He collected voters' ballots and said in an interview this year, "It's called campaigning, not cheating."
Sen. Richard Hilderbrand, a Galena Republican, said its important to have an adequate "chain of custody" to be sure that sealed ballot envelopes aren't being tampered with or thrown away.
"If they're going out and collecting 100 ballots, how do you know that they're turning in 100 ballots?" he said.
Kansas had a small number of highly publicized election fraud cases prosecuted by former Secretary of State Kris Kobach in the past six years. Most were people who were caught or who mistakenly voted in two states in one election. Republican lawmakers are influenced by Trump and his allies' persistent but unfounded allegations of fraud elsewhere.
"I want to make sure these elections are secure, fair and transparent," said Sen. Larry Alley, a Winfield Republican.
Democratic Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, of Wichita, asked several times whether she would be allowed to deliver the ballot of a disabled 80-year-old constituent. Each time, she was told no, and concluded the last time with, "I hear it loud and clear."
"I'm elected to assist in some manner some constituencies," she said. "If this 80-year-old woman has outlived her spouse, she has no children, you know, she needs help."
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