As Kansas district attorney refuses to enforce election law, voter groups won’t resume registration drives

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
A ballot is dropped off into a secure drop-off box during the general elections in Shawnee County in 2020.

Voter advocates won't resume registration drives in Kansas, despite the Douglas County district attorney's refusal to enforce a new election law.

Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, a Democrat, announced last week that her office won't prosecute people who violate HB 2183.

"This is not a partisan issue," Valdez said in a news release. "This law criminalizes essential efforts by trusted nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters to engage Kansans on participation in accessible, accountable and fair elections. It is too vague and too broad and threatens to create felons out of dedicated defenders of democracy."

Valdez's decision comes ahead of Tuesday's primary elections.

However, the League of Women Voters of Kansas won't be restarting its voter registration drives.

"This doesn’t change anything for us at this time," said Jacqueline Lightcap, the League's co-president. "We feel there are still many unknowns related to this law and look forward to getting clarity soon from the Court."

The law, along with HB 2332, is already the subject of a pair of state and federal lawsuits. Advocates have especially targeted provisions that limit the number of advance ballots an individual can bring to the polls on behalf of someone else and criminalizing conduct that gives the appearance of being an elections official.

Related:Voting rights advocates file dueling lawsuits arguing new Kansas election laws are unconstitutional

Valdez said the definitions of "conduct" and "appearance" are subjective under the law, which doesn't require the "reasonable person" standard. Impersonating an elections official is already illegal under other state statutes.

"Normal, everyday, traditional political activities have been declared unlawful and can potentially carry a prison sentence," Valdez said. "Even the charge itself is a public record. A felony conviction can affect things like employment and housing, not to mention the loss of voting rights."

She said "the inevitable effect" of the law will be "weakened or depleted voter engagement efforts."

Republican legislators have argued in favor of the laws, citing the need to ensure safe and secure elections, despite no known instances of mass fraud in Kansas. The laws were passed by the Legislature over the veto of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly.

Some advocates have cited concerns that Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt could prosecute potential violators in the Lawrence area. Schmidt, a Republican, is also running for governor.

More:The governor's race is officially underway. What role will Sam Brownback and Donald Trump play?

A spokesperson for the attorney general's office didn't respond to emailed questions, including whether the office will take up enforcement in Douglas County and whether Schmidt considers the local prosecutor's announcement to be a legitimate case of prosecutorial discretion.

On Monday, Schmidt "assured Kansans that election crimes will still be prosecuted" in Douglas County. His statement said law enforcement agencies may present evidence on the "election-integrity law" to his office.

"Thousands of Kansans will go to the polls tomorrow in the municipal primary elections," Schmidt said. "Citizens throughout our state deserve assurance that state election-integrity laws will be enforced and election crimes, like all other crimes, will be prosecuted when warranted by the evidence."

Valdez responded Monday evening, calling Schmidt's statement "a threat" to those who help voters.

"This undermining of my local authority is a disturbing example of overreach, attempted intimidation and partisan bluster," she said.

Jill Jess, a spokesperson for the Douglas County District Attorney's Office, said the office is unaware of other county-level prosecutors who are refusing to enforce the election law.

It isn't entirely unheard of for county prosecutors, who are elected officials, to refuse to enforce laws. 

In May 2020, Reno County District Attorney Keith Schroeder announced that he wouldn't prosecute any cases based on coronavirus-related executive orders issued by Kelly. At the time, Schroeder cited a legal opinion from Schmidt that questioned the legality of the governor’s “rolling” disaster declaration.

Schroeder said he would continue to enforce local health orders.

Last summer, several local law enforcement officials across the state announced they wouldn't enforce the governor’s mask mandate.

“As with the Governor's previous orders, they are not laws, and they are not enforceable,” St. Marys police announced in a Facebook post.

The emergency management law states the governor’s orders “have the force and effect of law during the period of a state of disaster emergency.” The governor may also “require and direct the cooperation and assistance of state and local governmental agencies and officials.”