Organizations worried as Wyandotte Co. Election Commissioner refuses meeting

Published: Sep. 27, 2023 at 6:59 AM CDT
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KANSAS CITY, Kan. (WIBW) - A handful of organizations are concerned after the Wyandotte Co. Election Commissioner refused a meeting to discuss language access which could put voters’ rights in jeopardy.

The ACLU of Kansas says that 10 agencies and organizations in Wyandotte Co. are surprised and disappointed after Election Commissioner Michael Abbott denied a meeting to discuss the need for better language access and early voting this season.

“We were certainly surprised by this denial, given our shared interest in a strong, healthy democracy with Mr. Abbott,” said Leslie Butsch, Field Organizing Director of the ACLU of Kansas. “It’s not often that this many organizations and community groups come together on an issue and ask for the same thing, so it’s disappointing to see Mr. Abbott decline such a remarkable opportunity to better understand the needs of the community of voters his office serves.”

Abbott blamed the dismissal on a lack of time for meeting as his office prepares for the 2024 elections. His response followed an Aug. 24 letter to request a meeting to discuss the county’s significant minority populations’ need for voting materials in languages other than English and to clarify his office authority under federal election law.

“Mr. Abbott inherently misunderstands the law, which does not prohibit foreign language election information to citizens to enhance their understanding of voting procedures and choices – something that ten other Kansas counties already do,” said Judy Ancel, President of the Cross Border Network for Justice and Solidarity. “Given the evolving needs of the changing community, we urge Mr. Abbott to look at the examples of Shawnee, Haskell, Wilson, and numerous others who have recognized how providing better language access serves their community’s needs builds trust, increases voter turnout, and boosts election administration.”

In his emailed response, Abbott claimed he was not authorized to change ballot languages in the county and that his office previously provided forms when requested.

“It is absolutely within the scope of preparing for this and next year’s elections,” said Ephren Taylor, Kansas City Metro Organizer at Loud Light. “Wyandotte County does not currently meet the federal formula—but that formula represents the floor for access. And we’re hopeful that Mr. Abbott can work proactively to improve access to democracy for all eligible voters in the county.”

Currently, the ACLU said Wyandotte Co. does not meet the standard under the Voting Rights Act which requires jurisdictions to make all election-related information available in languages other than English if demographics meet certain formula-based requirements.

“For us, having the ballot in the language a person best understands is protecting their vote,” explained Elizabeth Reynoso, Director of Community Education and Outreach at El Centro. “When the information is not your language and you rely on others to help translate or explain who is on the ballot, there might be bias and influence over your vote. With recent voting laws that were passed, assistance available from non-partisan organizations is even more limited. Voting information and ballots in other languages would help protect citizens’ votes.”

However, local jurisdictions still have the choice to make election materials available in multiple languages as there is no law against it. As current trends of limited-English speakers of voting age make it possible the county would reach the threshold by 2026.

“Our community is respectfully and clearly saying what we need out loud,” said Aude Negrete Banos, Executive Director of the Latino Community Network. “We are voters of Wyandotte County, and we believe that language access is essential to building a stronger democracy–not just for voters who have limited English proficiency, but for anyone who simply feels more comfortable in another language. This is for all of us.”

The group said the letter urged the Election Office to consider language access availability and other steps to take now to comply by election season. The organizations have called on voters in Wyandotte Co. and those interested in the issue to contact Abbott.

The letter was signed by:

  • The ACLU of Kansas
  • Advocates for Immigrant Rights and Reconciliation
  • Cross-Border Network
  • El Centro
  • Equality Kansas
  • Latino Community Network
  • Loud Light
  • Mainstream Coalition
  • MORE2
  • The Voter Network