KS Appeals Court ruling calls voting fundamental right, AG calls ruling “radical”

(Charlie Riedel | AP)
Published: Mar. 17, 2023 at 3:06 PM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - The Kansas Court of Appeals says voting is a fundamental right, and any potential restrictions must meet strict scrutiny.

Friday’s ruling stemmed from a challenge to a state law that requires elections officials to match signatures on mail ballots to voter signatures on file, and also limits how many advance ballots a person may deliver on others’ behalf. The League of Women Voters of Kansas, Loud Light, Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and Topeka Independent Living Resource Center filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Scott Schwab and Attorney General Kris Kobach, calling the law unconstitutional.

In its ruling, the Court states any law that potentially infringes on the right to vote must be thoroughly reviewed.

“There is no question that the right to vote is a fundamental right protected by the Kansas Constitution,” the Court wrote in its opinion. “The right to vote is the foundation of a representative government that derives its power from the people. All basic civil and political rights depend on the right to vote.”

Supporters say the law, passed in 2021, is about preserving the integrity of elections and improving security. In a statement, Kobach blasted the judge’s decision, calling it “the most radical election law decision in the country.”

“It is clearly wrong,” Kobach said. “The decision is directly contrary to what the U.S. Supreme Court has said, as well as what every state supreme court has said on the matter. The decision is also illogical. Having election officials make sure that it is your signature on your advance ballot doesn’t hurt your right to vote.  It protects your vote from being stolen by someone else. This is especially true because the Kansas statute gives the voter a second chance to sign again when the signatures don’t match.”

Schwab also issued a statement, saying his office is reviewing the Court’s opinion and that it “appears to be a substantial change to the judicial standard of reviewing state election laws.”

Loud Light posted a statement applauding the decision.

“We are thrilled the Kansas Appeals Court has unanimously ruled in our favor finding that any restriction on voting must pass the highest level of scrutiny,” they said.

The law under review limits the number of advance mail ballots one person may deliver to 10. The groups argued they regularly assisted senior citizens and people with disabilities who live in facilities with turning in their ballots, often picking up more than 10 ballots at once. The Court’s ruling supported the practice.

“Not all voters can make a trip to the polls, for various reasons. In the past, other people have assisted them in voting by helping them mark their ballot or by simply taking their marked ballot to the ballot box for them,” the Court wrote. “The limit of 10 ballots means only 10 voters will be helped. What about any others? The restriction will prevent those votes from being cast and counted because those who can get to the polls are limited to 10. If a volunteer routinely picked up 30 ballots and now is limited to 10, who will take up the slack? This statute is a limitation that prevents votes from being cast and counted.”

The Court also noted the signature-matching requirements took a swipe at mail ballots in general.

“A person cannot know beforehand that their mail-in ballot will be rejected for a signature mismatch by the elections office. A qualified voter that votes by mail for whatever reason in accordance with Kansas law has an expectation that their vote will be counted,” the Court wrote. “The right at issue is really the fundamental right to have one’s vote counted. The right to vote is illusory if it does not include the right to have one’s vote counted.”

Friday’s ruling does not automatically overturn the law. Instead, the Appeals Court said the lower court applied the wrong standard in dismissing the plaintiffs’ claims, and sent the case back to the lower court to hear new arguments.

Read the full Kansas Court of Appeals decision.