The sprawling Republican effort to make voting more difficult has been derailed for the first time by a Democratic governor.
Laura Kelly of Kansas has vetoed two bills, one curbing the number of ballots third parties may collect and deliver and the other giving the Legislature total control over election rules. Both were drafted in response to developments in other states last year — decisions by courts and governors to ease access to the ballot during the pandemic, and Donald Trump's baseless claims that widespread fraud had robbed him of a second presidential term.
The measures now return to the capital, where both have more than enough support for a veto override in the Senate but appear to be a handful of votes short of the necessary two-thirds majority in the House. Kansas' 2021 legislative session lasts three more weeks.
While Georgia has been the focus of this year's intense nationwide fight over election legislation, in part because it was one of the purple states key to President Biden's win, the battle is also being fought in plenty of states Trump carried — with new curbs already enacted in Iowa and Montana and steadily advancing in Texas and Florida.
But the GOP holds all the levers of lawmaking power in all of them. Kansas is one of eight states with Democratic governors and Republican statehouses. Biden took 42 percent there last fall, only the sixth time since World War II when the Democratic nominee got more than two of every five votes.
This got the state's GOP agitated and fueled conspiracy theories — many about cheating at the hands of so-called "ballot harvesters" — that Republican Secretary of State Scott Schwab has labored to tamp down. He says voting in 2020 was "free and fair."
One of the vetoed measures would take Kansas off the roster of 26 states that permit voters to entrust anyone they like to deliver their completed absentee ballot. Both political parties and various campaign organizations use such laws to collect envelopes from sympathetic voters — mainly the elderly, poor and disabled as well as people living in remote areas such as Indian reservations.
But Republicans, fueled by Trump, have turned against the practice with a vengeance in recent years, arguing without much evidence that it encourages fraud. (The biggest such case of cheating, by far, involved a 2018 GOP congressional campaign in North Carolina.) The Supreme Court is now deliberating whether Arizona's curbs on third-party collection amounts of racially discriminatory voter suppression.
The Kansas bill would limit to 10 the number of ballots anyone could deliver, and also stiffen signature-match requirements on mail-in forms.
"Although Kansans have cast millions of ballots over the last decade, there remains no evidence of significant voter fraud," the governor said in a statement on Friday. "This bill is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. It is designed to disenfranchise Kansans, making it difficult for them to participate in the democratic process, not to stop voter fraud."
The other bill she vetoed would prevent her from changing election laws or procedures by executive order, and would bar the secretary of state from negotiating any settlements of election-related lawsuits without approval from the Legislature. But Kelly decreed no such alterations to voting procedures in 2020 and none were mandated in the state by the courts — putting Kansas in a distinct minority of just 16 states where neither thing happened in response to the Covid-19 crisis.
In her veto message, Kelly warned such a law could imperil the business climate in the state, as more and more companies have spoken out this spring against legislation that would curb ballot access.
The bill would respond, however, to the most prominent recent case of election malfeasance in Kansas, by requiring a brick-and-mortar residential address for all registered voters. The congressional career of Republican Steve Watkins came to an abrupt end after one term in 2020, partly after it was revealed he'd listed his home as a UPS store so he could vote illegally for a friend running for the city council in Topeka.
Kelly is running for a second term but is seen as one of the most electorally vulnerable governors in 2022.
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Time after time, serious attempts to uncover voting fraud have come up essentially empty — though no effort has been more dogged than by the Republicans in charge in Kansas. Now, an allegation has landed at their feet. The accused is a freshman GOP congressman from Topeka.
Rep. Steve Watkins was charged Tuesday with three felonies connected to the city's municipal election last year, apparently the first allegations of election cheating against a sitting member of Congress in more than two decades. He allegedly repeatedly signed documents listing a UPS store as his home address, allowing him to vote in a city council race decided by just 13 votes.
The case poses a nettlesome challenge for President Trump, who has spent the past four years wrongly asserting that voter fraud is rampant and GOP candidates are the principal victims — his rationale for opposing the liberalized use of mail ballots as he stands for re-election during the coronavirus pandemic.
Not only is Watkins a Republican who has voted the way the president wanted almost every time during his 18 months in office, but the most high-profile case of recent cheating involved Republican operatives and required a do-over of a North Carolina congressional election last year.
About an hour after the charges were announced, Watkins dismissed them during his first debate against his two opponents in a competitive Aug. 4 primary. "This is clearly hyper-political," he said. "I haven't done anything wrong."
The district attorney of Shawnee County, Mike Kagay, is also a Republican. He charged Watkins with interfering with law enforcement by providing false information, voting without being qualified and unlawful advance voting. The congressman was also charged with failing to notify the state motor vehicle agency of his change of address,
According to the allegations, Watkins wrongly claimed the UPS store as his official residence when re-registering to vote last August, requested an absentee ballot in October and then voted to fill a seat on the council for a district more than two miles away from where he really lives.
At the debate, the congressman repeated the defense he's used since local media reported the discrepancies several months ago: He had accidentally put his UPS mailbox instead of his physical address on the forms and corrected the error as soon as it was brought to his attention.
In his first bid for office, Watkins secured the nomination for an open House seat with just 26 percent of vote in a seven-way primary in 2018, then won narrowly in what's normally a solidly Republican district.
His main GOP opponent in three weeks is state Treasurer Jake LaTurner, who dropped plans to run for the Senate in order to oppose Watkins. Democrats think they have a shot against either of them in November with Topeka Mayor Michelle De La Isla as their nominee, although Trump carried the district by 19 points four years ago
The congressman's spokesman issued a statement saying that the charges had been brought at the behest of LaTurner, who is a politically ally of the local prosecutor. "Just like President Trump," the statement said, "Steve is being politically prosecuted by his opponents who can't accept the results of the last election."
The 43-year-old congressman's problems do not end there. His father says he's being investigated by the Federal Election Commission for allegedly funneling money to friends and relatives in 2018 with the understanding they'd donate it to the Watkins campaign — which is illegal under federal law.
And the House GOP adopted rules two years ago requiring that members under felony indictment relinquish all seats on committees. Watkins is on the Education and Labor, Foreign Affairs, and Veterans Affairs' panels.
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Overing is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, and a chapter development consultant for Bridge USA, a national student-run organization seeking to depolarize college campuses and increase youth civic engagement.
Support for alternative forms of voting appears to be growing in response to increasing dissatisfaction with elected officials at the local, state and federal levels. With many municipalities considering new election procedures, Americans should investigate the various methods and the effects each has on potential election outcomes.
Plurality voting and ranked-choice voting are the most discussed options.
The most popular and widespread model, plurality voting, is the status quo used for the majority of elections. It allows voters to choose the one candidate they think best represents their interests, and the candidate with the most votes wins. It's straightforward, relatively easy to implement and common sense. It ensures every vote counts equally.
Despite its simplicity, plurality voting has downsides. It greatly privileges those who control the means of disseminating information about each candidate.The news media and social media giants can skew their sites to favor, or report more negatively, on one candidate. Additionally, better-funded campaigns can spread their message farther.
The most obvious disadvantage to plurality voting is the reduction of most contests to two viable candidates, at most. The Republicans and Democrats want only one nominee for the general election, since sending an additional candidate would likely cause the party to split its votes and assure victory for the other side. Many voters also avoid third-party candidates since they aren't perceived as viable.
And so, plurality voting encourages a winner-takes-all model that eliminates otherwise viable candidates from the election, discouraging parties from nominating more than one person and discouraging voters from choosing other candidates.
Ranked-choice voting has emerged as an attractive alternative to the current system. RCV has gained significant traction, replacing plurality voting for elections in a couple dozen cities across the country and throughout Maine.
RCV attempts to address the reductive effects of plurality voting by allowing voters to rank the available candidates from best to worst. When ballots are tallied, the candidate with the least number of first-choice votes is removed, votes for that candidate are reallocated to whoever the voter ranked second, and this process continues until one candidate is undeniably on top.
This design, then, removes the constraints that force a choice between two candidates. Voters can vote for a third party or un-nominated candidate comfortably, since their votes will be redirected to a preferred establishment candidate if their first choice is defeated.
Just like plurality voting, however, RCV does not come without issues. It can cause a phenomenon known as ballot exhaustion, in which voters effectively lose their vote once their ranked candidates all fall out of the running. Ballot exhaustion creates a dangerous scenario in which the winner might not receive a majority of votes.
In effect, voters who didn't include the last remaining candidates don't get a say. They don't get a vote. This dilemma can only be alleviated by having voters rank every candidate. While this approach might work in local elections, exporting it to the state and federal levels (in which the number of candidates expands significantly) would be daunting.
Even the plurality voting system limits how many candidates can be on a ballot, and with good reason. Not only would functional limitations of the ballot's size restrain the number who can actually be listed, but also inundating constituents with options can decrease civic engagement. Whereas voters can be expected to read through policy positions of two or three candidates, doing so for many more would be unrealistic.
As a result, RCV might increase the diversity of candidates voters feel comfortable with — but it does so at the cost of potentially disenfranchising voters or disincentivizing civic engagement. On the other hand, plurality voting is simple to understand and ensures every vote counts. Still, it does so while creating the opportunity for undue influence in elections and restricting the number of viable choices.
And so, while plurality voting is proven to work and RCV has shown promise, neither is without bad side effects. A potential solution might be a middle-ground approach, in which the different methods are used for different scales of elections.
Take Alaska, Hawaii, Kansas and Wyoming as an example. While they used RCV for their presidential nominating contests this spring, all will use plurality voting in the fall. The Democratic Party can therefore ameliorate voter concerns over choosing less popular candidates while retaining its unified front in the general.
Ordinarily, RCV in this limited use would still bring concerns of ballot exhaustion and inundation of candidates. However, ranked-choice partisan primaries can avoid these pitfalls. Primaries generally have a manageable number of candidates so every potential nominee can get ranked. The number of issues for voters to parse is limited to items on the party platform and, since those are issues primary voters are likely to be familiar with, smaller differences among candidates will get noticed even though they would seem irrelevant in a general election. And parties don't have to worry about cannibalizing votes from their own candidates.
This solution isn't perfect, but it might alleviate some of the public trust issues with our democracy. Whatever the case, though, citizens should think carefully about changes to voting. Adjustments that might appear beneficial on face can still produce undesirable consequences.
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