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Judge rules for voting-rights groups in Kansas mail-voting case

Out-of-state voting advocacy groups challenged Kansas' controversial limits on what could be mailed to voters.

(CN) — A federal judge on Thursday ruled in favor of two voter-advocacy groups that had challenged Kansas' mail-in voting restrictions, effectively overturning those restrictions just two years after they were passed over the governor's veto.

U.S. District Judge Kathryn H. Vratil, a George H. W. Bush appointee, ended the Sunflower State's prohibitions on personalized absentee ballot applications, citing First Amendment rights like free speech and free association in her ruling.

The matter may not be over. Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach said in an email Friday morning: “We believe that the ruling is incorrect and we intend to appeal.”

In 2021, the GOP-dominated Kansas state legislature passed HB 2332 after overriding a veto from Democratic Governor Laura Kelly. The law banned out-of-state organizations from distributing advanced-voting applications to Kansans.

The law also prohibited sending voters mail-in-ballot applications with personal information already filled in. Two out-of-state voting groups — VoteAmerica and the Voter Participation Center — sued over the law, arguing the restrictions violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

During the prior election in 2020, the Voter Participation Center had sent out 60 million absentee voting applications nationwide, including 90,000 applications across Kansas. Likewise, VoteAmerica's efforts led to nearly 70,000 Sunflower State voters requesting mail-in-ballots for the 2020 election.

In 2021 — the same year the law passed — courts granted the Voter Participation Center a temporary injunction, keeping the law from going into effect.

Kansas officials in 2022 also agreed not to enforce the ban on out-of-state distributors, leaving the ban on personalized voting applications as the only remaining dispute in this case.

That provision prohibited groups from mailing Kansas voters applications with pre-filled information like the voter's name or address. Officials argued these rules minimized voter confusion, preserved voter confidence and reduced inaccurate applications.

The Voter Participation Center argued that providing underserved groups personalized applications was a core part of its mission to encourage people to register to vote and take part in the electoral process. Sending personalized ballot applications was "expressive conduct," the groups argued, and rules against them "chilled" their speech.

In her order on Thursday, Vratil agreed. People who received personalized ballot applications were "highly likely to understand" that the mailings communicated the groups' "pro-advance mail voting message," Vratil wrote in her order. "Mailing the personalized applications is inherently expressive conduct that the First Amendment embraces."

Among the state officials who defended the law were Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, Attorney General Kris Kobach and Johnson County District Attorney Stephen M. Howe. None immediately responded to requests for comment by press time.

In a statement on Thursday, the Voter Participation Center called the ruling a "win for democracy" that would "make elections more accessible for all eligible voters of Kansas." Tom Lopach, president and CEO of the group, said HB 2332 had been a "dangerous law" that "made voting more difficult for Kansans."

“In the 2020 election, we saw firsthand the urgency of vote-by-mail in the midst of the pandemic," Lopach said in that statement. "That’s why we fought back–to protect Kansans from this assault on our democracy."

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Politics

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