The Kansas Court of Appeals on Friday reinstated a lawsuit challenging the provisions of a 2021 voting law that opponents say is unconstitutional and restricts voting rights.
The lawsuit was filed in 2021 by Loud Light, the League of Women Voters of Kansas, the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center, and the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
They were challenging provisions of a law passed by the Republican-controlled legislature that limits the number of pre-voted ballots individuals can collect and requires election officials to match the signatures on a pre-voted ballot with someone’s voter registration.
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Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach said Friday he would appeal the ruling.
Proponents of the law argued that restricting individuals from collecting and returning more than 10 advanced ballots per election would reduce “vote harvesting” and limit voter fraud. Kansas Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the measure, but lawmakers overruled her veto.
Friday’s unanimous opinion, written by Judge Stephen Hill, said the two provisions affect voting rights.
“It was through free elections that we gained statehood. Voting rights are thus preserved in the Kansas Constitution,” Hill wrote. “Great care must be taken to restrict or violate those rights. Voting was important then. Voting is important now.”
The court returned the lawsuit to Shawnee County District Court Judge Teresa Watson, who initially dismissed the lawsuit in April 2022 after finding the restrictions reasonable. The ruling does not abolish the law. But it requires Watson to review the lawsuit using “strict scrutiny,” which is the highest standard of legal review.
Kobach called the ruling “the most radical election law in the country”. He said the signature verification requirement protects people from having their voice stolen. He did not comment on the provision limiting the collection of ballots.
The Kansas Court of Appeals has reinstated a lawsuit challenging state rules restricting ballot deposits.
“It’s clearly wrong,” Kobach said in a statement. “The decision is in direct contradiction to what the U.S. Supreme Court has said, as well as what every state Supreme Court has said on the case.”
Davis Hammet, executive director of Loud Light, noted that the ruling does not address whether the law is constitutional, but said it was still a victory for voters.
“It clarified that the right to vote is a fundamental constitutional right and said that when election laws are challenged, the courts will apply the highest level of scrutiny to those laws,” Hammet said.
Hammet said the ruling is especially important in the wake of unfounded claims that the 2020 election was not valid, sparking a wave of misinformation and voter suppression laws across the country.
“What the court said here is that (legislators) can’t just limit voting rights,” he said. “If you have a disability, it has to be there for a compelling reason. You have to show that you’re not just stopping people from voting or having their votes counted.”
Jacqueline Lightcap, co-chair of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said the ruling supports many arguments proponents of voting have advanced since 2021.
“We think the judge has some excellent points in saying that voting is a fundamental right and that the earlier case was rushed out of court,” Lightcap said. “We are very excited to have the opportunity to hear it again.”
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Secretary of State Scott Schwab said his office was reviewing the decision, but said it “appeared to be a substantial change to the judicial standard for reviewing state election laws.”
Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Wichita Republican, called the decision “shocking” and said it jeopardizes all current election integrity laws.
“I am confident that Attorney General Kobach will swiftly appeal this egregious decision and that Republicans in the House will support his efforts in every way possible,” Hawkins said.
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The Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments last month over another provision of the law that makes it a crime to impersonate election officials. Opponents said the provision would make it difficult to conduct voter registrations.