GOP Push Against Ballot Drop Boxes Hits Rural Places, Too

LECOMPTON, Kan. (AP) -- Holes in the sidewalk outside Lecompton City Hall are a reminder that voters can drop their ballots in a box bolted there during elections. But as Republicans question the security of drop boxes, this small northeast Kansas town -- and plenty of others -- stands to lose them.

A proposal approved early Thursday by the GOP-controlled Kansas Senate would cut the number of drop boxes statewide by more than 40% from the 2020 elections. It's part of a national Republican effort to tighten election laws and roll back voter conveniences adopted during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.

The measure would likely hit small towns like Lecompton on the outskirts of more populated places and some villages dotting rural vistas miles from the county courthouse.

With mid-term elections approaching, Republicans are appealing to supporters of former President Donald Trump, who falsely blames his 2020 election loss on widespread voter fraud.

"That would probably be ironic, that they might end up hurting some of their own base," said Davis Hammet, leader of Loud Light, a Kansas voting-rights group. "It's about making sure that citizens who want to vote can easily vote."

The Kansas Senate passed its bill 22-17, sending it to the state House for consideration next week. Counties could have no more than one box for every 30,000 registered voters -- and all but 10 of the state's 105 counties don't have that many. Forty-eight of the state's counties -- almost half -- would have to cut back on their drop boxes. They would lose 80 of the 191 boxes deployed in 2020.

During Wednesday's debate, senators added a provision to require counties to staff each box -- something that could further discourage their use. Drop boxes would have to remain locked when the county elections office is closed; many were unlocked around-the-clock in 2020.

Supporters argued they are addressing people's doubts about the 2020 elections. And Sen. Dennis Pyle, a conservative Republican from rural northeast Kansas, said he worried about boxes being burned or wrenched away by trucks with chains.

"You know, I've seen some crazy things happen on YouTube," Pyle said.

Even in liberal California, drop boxes are only allowed inside government buildings and are guarded. Georgia sets a 100,000 active-voter threshold for additional drop boxes; Iowa limits them to one per county, and Idaho lawmakers are considering a ban.

But Colorado, New Jersey and Washington have set minimum numbers of drop boxes rather than limiting them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Democrats in Congress pushed to require a drop box for every 20,000 registered voters.

Kansas -- currently without limits -- averaged one box for about every 10,000 registered voters in 2020, according to data compiled by the secretary of state's office. Nineteen counties with fewer than 5,000 registered voters had two or more in 2020.

Wabaunsee County, west of Topeka, had four drop boxes in 2020 for about 5,200 registered voters, including one outside city hall in Harveyville, population 178. By the shortest route, over three state highways twisting through the hills, it's 40 minutes from there to the county courthouse.

"We do have people that will call, you know, the last day and say, 'I didn't get my ballot in the mail,'" said Abby Amick, the elected Republican county clerk.

More than a dozen Kansas counties -- including its most populous one, Johnson County in the Kansas City area -- wouldn't have hit their box limits in 2020 under the bill. Thirteen, most with fewer than 3,000 registered voters, had no drop boxes.

In Cherokee County in far southeastern Kansas, County Clerk Rebecca Brassart, an elected Republican, is skeptical that drop boxes can be secure. With about 14,000 registered voters, her county was the most populous without a drop box in 2020.

She said most voters who ask for absentee ballots bring them to the county courthouse in Columbus.

"We live in small communities, but thieving is getting bad," she said. "If somebody wants to break into something, they're going to break into it, right?"

But Kansas Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a conservative Republican, said Wednesday that drop boxes are more secure than using the U.S. mail, which for Kansas communities is processed outside the state.

As for stuffing the boxes, local elections officials said, each ballot has a county code and requires a secure envelope that must have a voter's signature that will be checked. Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew showed in a recent tour of his warehouse how it takes two people -- each with a separate key at the same time -- to unlock a box to collect ballots.

"The argument around it doesn't hold up -- against drop boxes," Schwab said.

The counties set to lose drop boxes include liberal-for-Kansas bastion Douglas County in northeast Kansas, home to the main University of Kansas campus and Lecompton, population 588. Shew, an elected Democrat, had nine deployed, including Lecompton's, which collected 95 ballots in the November 2020 election. His county would be allowed only two.

"It really hurts the outlying communities in our county," he said.

Heavily Democratic Wyandotte County in the Kansas City area would lose four of its six boxes. Its appointed election commissioner said only about 3% of the county's registered voters used them in the 2020 general election.

But local voting-rights activist Connie Brown Collins argues that the county ought to have even more drop boxes because they help shift workers and people who can't easily get to a polling place.

"We need to have greater representation, not less, in terms of voting," she said.