Conspiracies hinder GOP’s efforts in Kansas to cut the time for returning mail ballots

TOPEKA, Kan. — A recurrence of baseless election conspiracy theories in the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature appears to have wrecked Republican lawmakers’ efforts this year to shorten the time voters have to return their ballots.

The Senate was set to hold a final vote Tuesday on a bill that would eliminate the three extra days after polls close to allow voters to return their mail-in ballots to their local elections office. Many Republicans argue that the so-called grace period undermines confidence in the state’s election results, although there is no evidence of significant problems from the policy.

During a debate Monday, Republican senators rewrote the bill so that it would also ban remote ballot drop boxes — and starting next year, ban election officials from using machines to count ballots. Ballot boxes and tabulating machines have been targeted across the US as conspiracy theories are rife within the Republican Party and former President Donald Trump has promoted the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.

If the Senate passes the bill, it would be sent to the House of Representatives, but the ban on voting machines and remote ballot boxes almost destroys it there. Ending the grace period for mail-in ballots was already a dubious proposal because Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly opposes the idea, and Republican leaders lacked the two-thirds majority needed to override her veto of a similar bill last year .

Some Republicans had hoped to pass a limited bill this year and hold together Republican Party supermajorities to override a certain Kelly veto.

“This is not a vote that will secure our elections,” Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, said Monday, arguing against the ban on vote tabulating machines. “It’s going to put an anchor around the underlying bill.”

Trump’s false statements and his supporters’ embrace of the baseless idea that the US elections are fraught with problems have divided Republicans. In Kansas, the state’s top election official, Secretary of State Scott Schwab, is a conservative Republican, but he has repeatedly vouched for the integrity of state elections and promoted ballot drop boxes.

Schwab is neutral on whether Kansas should eliminate the three-day grace period, a policy lawmakers adopted in 2017 over concerns that the U.S. Postal Service was slowing down processing of mail.

More than 30 states require ballots to arrive at elections offices before Election Day in order to be counted, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and their policies vary widely. For the remaining states, deadlines range from 5 p.m. the day after polls close in Texas to no set deadline in Washington state.

Voting rights advocates argue that giving Kansas voters less time to return their ballots could disenfranchise thousands of them and particularly disadvantage poor, disabled and older voters and people of color. Democratic Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau of Wichita, the only Black woman in the Senate, said she was offended by comments suggesting that ending the grace period would not be a problem for voters willing to follow the rules.

“It makes it harder for people to vote — period,” she said.

In the House of Representatives, Republican Elections Committee Chairman Pat Proctor said he would have the panel extend early voting by three days to make up for the shorter deadline.

Proctor said Monday that there is no appetite in the House of Representatives to ban or severely restrict ballot drop boxes.

“Kansans who are not deeply involved in politics see absolutely no problem with voting machines and, honestly, neither do I,” he said.

During the Senate debate, conservative Republicans emphasized that electronic tabulating machines can be manipulated, despite no evidence of this in the US. They dismissed criticism that a return to manual counting would set election administration back decades.

They also incorrectly characterized mysterious letters sent to election offices in Kansas and at least four other states in November — including some containing the dangerous opioid fentanyl — as ballots left in mailboxes.

Sen. Mark Steffen, a conservative Republican from central Kansas, told his colleagues during Monday’s debate that Masterson’s advocacy against banning voting table systems was just an “incredibly, beautifully verbose commitment to mediocrity.”

“I encourage us to be strong,” he said. “We know what is right.”