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Home » Kansas Supreme Court justices point to ‘chilling’ impact of law on voter registration activity
TOPEKA — Justices of the Kansas Supreme Court on Wednesday raised concerns about the “deterrent” effect a 2021 law could have on League of Women Voters volunteers and others participating in voter registration campaigns.
Some legislation makes it a crime to engage in conduct that leads someone to believe you are a poll worker. In response, several nonprofit organizations have halted or scaled back their efforts to educate and assist potential voters.
The League of Women Voters joined forces with Loud Light, Kansas Appleseed and the Topeka Independent Living Resource Council to challenge the law’s provisions. A district judge and an appeals court dismissed the case, saying those organizations could not show how the law affected their operations.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Judge Melissa Standridge said the appeals court made a mistake.
Standridge fought with Bradley Schlozman, who defended the law on behalf of the state.
“This case represents a completely fabricated controversy in which the plaintiffs inexplicably beg the court to interpret the law in the most unreasonable way possible in order to expose themselves to criminal liability,” Schlozman said. “The law does not support the interpretation they put forward.”
Elisabeth Frost, attorney for Washington, DC-based Elias Group, presented arguments on behalf of the nonprofits that filed the lawsuit.
She said the League of Women Voters has helped Kansans get registered to vote for more than 100 years. The other organizations involved in the lawsuit are “deeply committed to this work,” Frost said, and have “severely curtailed their efforts” for fear that their staff and volunteers would be charged with a crime.
“It’s frankly preposterous to suggest that they filed this lawsuit and restricted their activities just for the fun of it,” Frost said. “They are afraid because the simple language scares them.”
Bradley Schlozman argues in the Kansas Supreme Court on Wednesday. He said the law should only apply to an undefined “reasonable person” and not, for example, to abstainers. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)
Schlozman’s argument was that no sane person would believe that a volunteer at a voter registration drive was an election worker, especially if that volunteer dissuaded someone from the wrong idea.
But several judges, including Standridge, Evelyn Wilson and Caleb Stegall, pointed to the lack of language in the law that would define a “reasonable person”. They seemed to agree with the plaintiffs’ argument that someone would confuse a volunteer with a poll worker.
Wilson hypothetically wondered if she would be breaking the law by distributing a pamphlet issued by the Secretary of State’s office without adding a disclaimer stating that she is not actually the Secretary of State.
“Don’t you think that’s pretty off-putting?” she said.
Schlozman said the state has an interest in protecting the public. The notion that someone would mistake a nonprofit volunteer for a poll worker is “subjective,” he said.
“Not subjective,” Standridge said. “You have experienced it. They have affidavits that show, ‘People got us mixed up.’ ”
Schlozman said the affidavits suggest the mistaken identity is inevitable, leading to Standridge shouting “No!” She pointed out that the affidavits make it clear that people who work at the voter registration booths are sometimes mistaken for poll workers.
“If so, Your Honor, where do you draw the line?” Schlozman asked.
“Exactly,” said Standridge. “Do you draw the line at one person in 10,000? Or is it five out of 10,000 people? Is it 30 people?”
Elisabeth Frost says the law has forced the League of Women Voters and other organizations to severely curtail their efforts to educate and register potential voters. (Pool photo by Evert Nelson/Topeka Capital-Journal)
Based on Schlozman’s argument, Standridge said there would have to be an evidentiary hearing for any person who misunderstood a volunteer’s identity.
Her examples: “Are you sane? What is your educational background? How high is your IQ? What is your voting experience like? How much experience do you have in community service?”
Schlozman countered with a pop culture reference: A man asks a woman if he has a chance and she tells him, “One in a million.” So, he replies, I have a chance.
“In such a scenario, I think certainly, statistically, they succumb to that theory,” he said. “There could and inevitably will be the willfully blind, the people who deny the election.”
If the number is one in 10,000, Schlozman said, organizations have nothing to worry about.
“Threatening to go to jail? One in 10,000?” said Standridge. “When I honestly bought a lottery ticket when it was a billion dollars, OK? Why would I risk my freedom at one in 10,000?”
Frost, the plaintiffs’ attorney, drew attention to Schlozman’s reference to abstainers.
“I don’t think this court can ignore the context in which this was passed, a context in which election officials in the United States are routinely harassed and threatened, and yet the Legislature has not included a sane person standard. ‘ said Frost.