Kansas lawmakers threaten voter registration volunteers with crimes

For more than a century, the League of Women Voters has led voter registration drives. But when GOP lawmakers in Kansas passed new legislation this year, those efforts could lead to criminal charges.


State News

August 13, 2021 - 5:16 PM

League of Women Voters

It’s county fair season across Kansas, but among the community group booths lined up alongside food vendors and livestock competitors, there is a noticeable absence: League of Women Voters volunteers with clipboards registering new voters.

Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president, League of Women Voters of Kansas

For more than a century, the nonpartisan voting rights group has led voter registration drives, often with local election officials. But when Republican lawmakers in the Sunflower State passed new legislation this year that could lead to criminal charges for people who run voter registration drives, the League of Women Voters of Kansas ceased its efforts.

“It’s like asking our League members to cut off an arm or leg,” said Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the group, which filed a lawsuit against top state officials June 1 with three other local voting rights groups. “It’s second nature. It’s part of what we do.”

Among the deluge of new voting restrictions passed by GOP lawmakers across the country this year are laws in three states that target nonprofit groups’ voter registration efforts. While Republican lawmakers and state officials say these measures are aimed at securing the election system, the measures threaten to criminalize or undermine long-standing voter outreach programs.

New laws in Florida, Kansas and Ohio have sent shockwaves through voting rights groups, which fear these measures may turn their volunteers into felons or may subject them to substantial fines just because they help register new voters.

“All of these laws are a backlash for folks participating in the presidential election,” said Michelle Kanter Cohen, policy director and senior counsel for the Fair Elections Center, a Washington, D.C.-based voting rights organization. “There was huge turnout among new voters, young voters, voters of color — those who use these organizations to register to vote.”

Michelle Kanter Cohen, Fair Elections Center

The Kansas law, which went into effect in July, made it a felony for people to engage in conduct that “gives the appearance of being an election official” or “that would cause another person to believe a person engaging in such conduct is an election official.”

For groups such as the League of Women Voters that have conducted voter registration drives at farmers markets, naturalization ceremonies and street fairs, this broad language could open volunteers to criminal charges if there is a misunderstanding.

“Anything that we do can be perceived as similar to an election official,” Lightcap said. “We didn’t want to risk anybody inadvertently getting in trouble for things we’ve been doing for many, many years.”

You could have a 75-year-old woman who had no criminal history and just trying to do a civic duty in a nonpartisan way being charged with a felony. I’m just shocked by all of it.Suzanne Valdez, Douglas County District Attorney

Republican state Reps. Blake Carpenter and Emil Bergquist, chair and vice chair of the committee that drafted the bill, did not respond to requests for comment.

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, a Democrat who serves the Lawrence area, will not prosecute people under the new law, telling Stateline the measure is too subjective and has chilled essential voter registration efforts.

“You could have a 75-year-old woman who had no criminal history and just trying to do a civic duty in a nonpartisan way being charged with a felony,” she said. “I’m just shocked by all of it. I don’t see how someone who is trying to get people to vote and be part of the democratic process is in any way a threat to public safety in our community.”

Suzanne Valdez, Douglas County District Attorney

While the practice is uncommon, there have been recent examples of prosecutors ignoring laws with which they disagree. In Kansas, Reno County District Attorney Keith Schroeder, a Republican, said last year that he would not enforce executive orders related to COVID-19. Marilyn Mosby, state’s attorney for Baltimore and a Democrat, said she would no longer prosecute marijuana infractions or certain other minor crimes, a stance shared by District Attorney Rachael Rollins of Suffolk County, Massachusetts. Rollins is also a Democrat.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, said suspected crimes related to the new law would still be prosecuted by his office, including in Douglas County, despite Valdez’s objections.