Kansas Senate advances ban on remote ballot drop boxes, sharp limits on mail-in voting

Months before a presidential election that will bring hundreds of thousands to the polls, Kansas lawmakers gave initial approval to a complete overhaul of Kansas’ voting system alongside severe limits on advance and mail-in voting following years of false claims of election irregularities and voter fraud.

The Kansas Senate voted Monday to advance a bill banning electronic voting machines and requiring all ballots be hand counted. The bill also bans remote ballot drop boxes and eliminates the three-day grace period for mail-in ballots to arrive if they were postmarked by election day. Drop boxes would be allowed if they were inside an election office and monitored.

Lawmakers will take a final vote on the legislation Tuesday. It will head to the House if passed.

The changes, which supporters argue are intended to avoid voter fraud and voter confusion, would alter the way local election officials operate in a critical election year.

Opponents said the bill would unnecessarily disenfranchise voters. The removal of electronic voting machines, they said, would add significantly more work for already overburdened election officials. Studies have shown hand counted elections are less accurate than those with machines.

“These are monumental changes we are asking them to make,” Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat, said. “This takes us back five decades. We stopped hand counting because it was error prone, easy to rig, and time consuming.”

The bill would also change the process for thousands of Kansans who vote by mail regularly.

Kansas counties used a combined 167 remote drop boxes in 2022 and more than 130,000 Kansans voted by mail that year according to data kept by the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office. In Johnson County, Election Commissioner Fred Sherman reported that 45% of the county’s mail-in ballots were returned by drop box in 2022.

Following Monday’s debate, Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican, criticized lawmakers for lacking faith in the system that elected them and harming voter confidence in the process.

“Today, the Senate took action to further undermine voter confidence and compromise election integrity with the bill as amended,” he said. “We encourage common sense to prevail before the final vote is cast.”

Voting rights advocates have warned limits on mail-in and advance voting could severely limit the ability for Kansans to make their voice heard – especially Kansans with disabilities who may be unable to vote in person on election day.

“Before we make changes to election laws, think about the groups and individuals who will be impacted,” said Mike Burgess, a lobbyist for the Disability Rights Center of Kansas.

But Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican, argued that, with persistent delays in the postal service, voters needed to be encouraged to physically show up at the polls.

“You’re disenfranchising yourself by not doing it the right way and showing up to the polls,” he said.

Baseless claims of fraud

The proposal faces major hurdles in the Kansas House and with Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly before becoming law.

Last year the Kansas Senate approved a bill that eliminated the 3-day grace period and banned remote drop boxes. The drop box piece was removed during negotiations with the House and Kelly successfully vetoed the final bill.

Sen. President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, warned lawmakers the addition of the amendment eliminating remote drop boxes may sacrifice election security as an issue in the Legislature this year.

“It will put an anchor around the underlying bill and we’ll be back to unregulated drop boxes and election day isn’t election day,” he said.

False claims of election fraud have spread in Kansas fueling consistent legislative efforts to limit mail-in voting and resulting in an investigation from Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden that has resulted in no criminal charges.

There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Kansas and Schwab has consistently called Kansas elections safe and secure and advocated for the use of ballot drop boxes.

Monday’s debate featured consistent conspiracy theories and claims of fraud and hacking without proof.

“We know for a fact (election machines) can be manipulated. I know, in time, we’ll be able to prove they were manipulated. That’s the only thing standing between us now,” said Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican. “It’s time to ensure safety over convenience and get it right for the people who stay in Kansas.”

Election officials have persistently said voting machines are reliable. There is no evidence they’ve been manipulated to alter the results of an election.

Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Parker Republican, claimed ballot drop boxes could result in destroyed or manipulated ballots though there are no known instances where that has occurred in Kansas.

The existence of unmonitored ballot drop boxes, she said, would make it impossible to enforce the state’s statute that restricts Kansans from returning more than 10 ballots on behalf of another voter.

“These remote boxes that are not monitored can be tampered with,” Tyson said. “We need to make sure that those ballots are counted and accurate.”