Home Part of States Newsroom
Senate rejects election bill amended to force hand counts of Kansas paper ballots


Senate rejects election bill amended to force hand counts of Kansas paper ballots

Mar 05, 2024 | 9:47 am ET
By Tim Carpenter
Senate’s advance ballot deadline bill hijacked to forbid use of technology to vote, count ballots
The Kansas Senate defeated an election bill containing an amendment opposed by Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover. He had unsuccessfully urged Senate colleagues to reject an amendment from Sen. Mark Steffen, R-Hutchinson, requiring Kansas elections starting in 2025 to rely on paper ballots that would be hand counted without aid of election equipment. Masterson said Steffen's amendment risked a veto by Gov. Laura Kelly of the bill, which also would repeal a law requiring mail-in ballots be accepted for three days after an election. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — A bipartisan majority in the Kansas Senate voted down Tuesday an election bill complicated by inclusion of an amendment requiring all voting to take place with paper ballots and hand counts without aid of computer technology.

Senate President Ty Masterson expressed empathy with Republican senators eager for sweeping change to Kansas election security law, but cautioned against weighing down the bill to the point it became veto bait for Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly. His advice wasn’t accepted, but the subsequent 18-22 final action vote on Senate Bill 365 sent the chamber back to the drawing board.

“Let’s defend, not undermine, a system that is working well for our constituents,” said Sen. Marci Francisco, a Lawrence Democrat who voted against the bill.

Masterson, the Andover Republican, said Monday during Senate floor debate that an amendment offered by GOP Sen. Mark Steffen of Hutchinson ending use of electronic equipment to cast votes and count ballots would be an albatross if added to the bill. Until Steffen went to work, the bill was limited to ending the three-day grace period for accepting mail-in ballots after Election Day and a ban on use of satellite ballot drop-off boxes.

Masterson took the unusual step of urging senators to vote “no” or at least vote “pass” on Steffen’s amendment, which critics asserted would return voting in Kansas to methods common in the 1970s.

“This amendment will put the anchor around this,” Masterson said. “A vote against the amendment is not a vote against the issue.”

Steffen, who began his remarks by declaring Lenexa election conspiracist Thad Snider the “foremost expert” on voting in Kansas, said he didn’t appreciate Masterson’s lack of aggression in terms of advancing legislation to stamp out fraudsters.

He said the Senate president’s words were those of a person frightened away from doing what was necessary to foster secure, accurate and transparent elections.

“They’re an incredibly, beautifully verbose commitment to mediocrity,” Steffen said. “Pure and simple. Mediocrity at its finest.”


Senate rejects election bill amended to force hand counts of Kansas paper ballots
GOP Sen. Mark Steffen of Hutchinson offered an amendment banning election equipment in the voting or counting of Kansas ballots. He argued election security required work of democracy to be done by hand. He also accused Senate President Ty Masterson, R-Andover, of being politically soft for opposing the amendment. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


Tar and feather a local

Steffen, who in the past alleged the Legislature was controlled by business special-interest groups, reminded Senate colleagues the Republican National Committee voted unanimously in 2023 to recommend hand-marked and hand-counted paper ballots as preferred option in voting.

In his amendment, Steffen would require each ballot in the paper-only voting system to carry a unique serial number as well as a watermark. The objective would be to track and catch people printing and distributing fake ballots in Kansas, he said.

“Yet, we don’t seem to have the stomach, the courage to do what we know is right. We’re timid. That’s a major struggle for me — to think at that level,” Steffen said.

The tally on Steffen’s amendment: yes, 17; no, 15; pass, seven; absent, one. That majority vote Monday placed the amendment in SB 365, which advanced to a final action Tuesday.

Steffen said pursuit of election integrity was a never-ending task, because history demonstrated some involved in campaign politics were intent on cheating.

“I’d much rather tar and feather and run a guy out of town on a rail — a local guy — than throw up my hands and say, ‘Man, that Chinese Communist Party! Or, darn those Russian hackers!’ This brings it back to the people of the state of Kansas,” Steffen said.


Senate rejects election bill amended to force hand counts of Kansas paper ballots
Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, said the election bill cobbled together on the Senate floor would disenfranchise voters by removing ballot drop boxes and reducing time allowed to submit mail-in ballots. She said the bill foolishly would force the state to rely on hand counting of ballots. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)


In the beginning

Under Kansas election law adopted in 2017, the deadline for getting advance ballots to county election offices by U.S. mail was the third day following an election. Those ballot envelopes had to be postmarked before the close of polls on Election Day.

However, SB 365 would impose a 7 p.m. Election Day deadline for delivery of ballots. That would compare to the deadline for for in-person voting.

Sen. Mike Thompson, R-Shawnee, and chairman of the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, said the grace period was adopted for benefit of military personnel sending advance ballots from other states or countries.

Procedurally, Thompson said, the U.S. Postal Service began placing postmarks or bar codes on envelopes that couldn’t be read by all the county election offices. He said counting late-arriving ballots led to repeated changes in preliminary vote totals that seemed to undermine public confidence in accuracy of the counting.

Kelly vetoed a comparable bill in 2023, declaring it a vehicle to disenfranchise voters. But the Senate failed to secure a two-third majority to override. In 2020, an estimated 32,000 valid ballots would have been tossed if the three-day exception hadn’t been part of state law.

Sen. Dinah Sykes, D-Lenexa, said that during a recent election cycle her son requested an advance ballot while attending college in another state. It took two weeks for the ballot to arrive in the mail. Her son voted and mailed it back to Kansas on the same day, but it arrived at the election clerk’s office one day after the election.

“We’re saying his vote should not be counted?” Sykes said.


Sen. David Haley said he had many factors to consider when thinking about the flat tax proposal. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, said it didn’t make sense for the Senate to support a bill eliminating remote ballot drop boxes after the secretary of state, who supervises elections statewide, indicated the boxes were a secure and convenient method of handling ballots. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)


Just say no to drop boxes

Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Republican from former Gov. Sam Brownback’s hometown of Parker, successfully added an amendment that would forbid deployment by county election officers of remote ballot drop boxes. The only ballot boxes worth keeping in Kansas were in an election office that was monitored by staff and under security camera surveillance, she said.

The Senate adopted an equivalent bill last year, but it didn’t survive the House and Senate negotiating process.

“These remote boxes can be tampered with,” Tyson said. “They can pour liquids in and destroy the ballots. We can have ballot harvesting, where you can put hundreds of ballots in, which is against the law. This would just help us enforce current laws and protect the integrity of the ballot.”

Senate Democrats indicated Secretary of State Scott Schwab, the state’s top elections officer, didn’t believe ballot boxes were inherently risky. In addition, Democrats said the secretary of state’s office requested retention of drop boxes if lawmakers abandoned the three-day grace period.

“Why do we want to do away with something that is effective, safe and that has had no ill-effect and that our chief election officer thinks is an effective system?” said Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City.

Tyson proposed two more amendments that were accepted by the Senate. The first would require anyone presenting an out-of-state driver’s license at a polling location to vote with a provisional ballot. Her other amendment would give county election officers clear authority to remove duplicate names from voter registration lists.

Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, said the product of the three-hour debate on election reform was nothing less than a “voter disenfranchisement bill.” In terms of hand counting of votes, she said, that antiquated method was expensive, slow, error-prone and easy to rig.

“The secretary of state has made exceptionally clear that Kansas elections are safe and secure,” Holscher said. “This is a step backward.”

Steffen had the final word: “Elections are not convenient. Democracy is not convenient. It’s our responsibility to get this right.”