Federal judge temporarily blocks Kansas voting law restricting out-of-state ballot applications
A federal court temporarily blocked Friday enforcement of a controversial election law passed earlier this year that makes it illegal for out-of-state groups to send Kansas residents advance ballot applications, among other provisions.
HB 2332, which took effect in July, also barred advance ballot applications from being sent if information is already filled out on them. Both provisions were the subject of a lawsuit from national voting rights groups, which argued it violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The groups, Vote America and the Voter Participation Center, said in the lawsuit that the newly enacted law effectively halts their work in Kansas and keeps them from "employing their most effective means of persuading voters to engage in the democratic process."
Both bills were initially rejected by Gov. Laura Kelly, but lawmakers moved to override her vetoes on largely party-line votes.
U.S. District Court Judge Kathryn Vratil denied Friday a request from the state to dismiss the case and instead blocked the law from being enforced. The ruling merely halts the law's enforcement until the case is resolved, with the judge saying "delayed implementation is not likely to cause material harm, even if it is eventually found to be constitutional and enforceable."
Judge says voter fraud is not a justification for law
In her opinion, Vratil said the law "will have the inevitable effect of reducing the total quantum of speech on an important public issue" and agreed with the voting rights group that a more demanding level of legal review was required.
The state has argued the bill is a legitimate means of easing confusion among residents, who were often flooded with multiple advance ballot applications in the lead up to the 2020 election. They also said a resident who receives multiple applications could more easily perpetuate voter fraud.
But Vratil rejected those arguments, noting there was no evidence applications mailed by out-of-state groups prompted more calls to election offices in 2020, and that it is unclear residents submitting multiple ballot requests created more work for election workers.
And she pointed to the rigorous process election officials in Kansas employ to ensure a person voting by mail has not sent in multiple ballots. The state could, she said, allow out-of-state groups to send ballots provided they submit the same kind of information a Kansas organization must provide.
"The record contains no evidence that out-of-state entities are more likely than in-state entities to encourage voter fraud or that HB 2332 is necessary to prevent Kansas voters from receiving duplicate mail ballots," Vratil wrote. "Plaintiffs will likely demonstrate that HB 2332 impermissibly restricts their ability to engage in protected First Amendment activity and that it is not narrowly tailored to serve the admittedly compelling state interest of preventing voter fraud."
Spokespeople for the Kansas attorney general and secretary of state's office said they were reviewing the decision and declined comment.
Kansas is the latest battleground over election laws, with 43 voting cases have been filed in 12 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, an advocacy group in support of expanded voting rights.
A state-level lawsuit also was filed against both HB 2332 and a separate bill, HB 2183, by a coalition of activist groups which argued, among other things, that provisions of HB 2183 halted their voter registration efforts.
That case is currently proceeding, after a Shawnee County judge declined in September to block the implementation of HB 2183.
Andrew Bahl is a senior statehouse reporter for the Topeka Capital-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com or by phone at 443-979-6100.