The Kansas Court of Appeals on Friday reinstated a lawsuit that challenged provisions of a voting law enacted in 2021 that opponents argue is unconstitutional and limits voting rights.
The lawsuit was filed in 2021 by Loud Light, the League of Women Voters of Kansas, the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center and the Kansas Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
They challenged provisions of a law passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature that limit how many advance mail ballots individuals can collect and require election officials to match the signatures on an advance ballot to a person’s voter registration record.
Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach said Friday he would appeal the ruling.
Supporters of the law argued that restricting individuals from collecting and returning more than 10 advanced ballots per election would reduce "ballot harvesting" and limit voter fraud. Kansas Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly vetoed the measure, but lawmakers overrode her veto.
The unanimous opinion Friday, written by Judge Stephen Hill, said the two provisions impair the right to vote.
“It was by free elections that we gained statehood. Thus, voting rights are preserved in the Kansas Constitution," Hill wrote. "Great care must be taken when trying to limit or infringe on those rights. Voting was important then. Voting is important now.”
The court sent the lawsuit back to Shawnee County District Court Judge Teresa Watson, who originally dismissed it in April 2022 after finding the restrictions were reasonable. The ruling does not strike down the law. But it requires Watson to review the lawsuit using "strict scrutiny," which is the highest standard of legal review.
Kobach called the ruling “the most radical election law decision in the country.” He said the signature verification requirement protects people from having their votes stolen. He did not address the provision limiting the collection of ballots.
“It is clearly wrong,” Kobach said in a statement. “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.”
Davis Hammet, executive director of Loud Light, noted the ruling did not address whether the law is constitutional but said it was still a victory for voters.
“It clarified the right to vote is a fundamental constitutional right and said when election laws are challenged the courts will apply the highest level of scrutiny to those laws,” Hammet said.
Hammet said the ruling is especially important in the aftermath of baseless claims that the 2020 election was not valid, which prompted a wave of misinformation and voter suppression laws across the country.
“What the court said here is (lawmakers) can’t just restrict the right to vote,” he said. “If you have a restriction, it has to be there for a compelling reason. You have to show you’re not just stopping people from voting or having their votes count.”
Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said the ruling supports many arguments that voting advocates have been making since 2021.
“We think the judge has some excellent points in saying voting is fundamental right and the earlier case was rushed out of district court,” Lightcap said. “We're very excited to have the chance to get it heard again.”
Secretary of State Scott Schwab said his office was reviewing the decision but said it "appeared to be a substantial change to the judicial standard of reviewing state election laws.”
Kansas House Speaker Dan Hawkins, a Republican from Wichita, called the decision “shocking” and said it endangers all current election integrity laws.
“I am confident that Attorney General Kobach will swiftly appeal this egregious decision and Republicans in the House will support his efforts in every possible way,” Hawkins said.
The Kansas Supreme Court heard arguments last month on another provision of the law, which makes it a crime to impersonate election officials. Opponents said the provision would make it difficult to conduct voter registration drives.