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New Laws Have Basically Ended Voter Registration Drives In Some Parts Of The U.S.

Voters cast their midterm ballots on Nov. 6, 2018, at Briles Schoolhouse in Peoria Township, Kan.
Whitney Curtis
Getty Images
Voters cast their midterm ballots on Nov. 6, 2018, at Briles Schoolhouse in Peoria Township, Kan.

Updated August 24, 2021 at 3:04 PM ET

New state laws tightening voting restrictions come in two basic varieties: those that make it harder to cast a vote and those making it more difficult to get registered to vote in the first place.

In Kansas, one law effectively shuts down voter registration drives.

It's now a felony offense to impersonate an election official, and the law creates a vague standard for breaking it, a standard that depends on impressions. It criminalizes engaging in conduct that might seem like something an election official would do.

Davis Hammet, president of the Kansas civic engagement group Loud Light, says that subjective standard would probably include work his volunteers do, which includes approaching people with clipboards and registering them to vote.

"So, if someone accuses you of being an election official or saying they were just confused and thought you were one, and you were arrested, you would be charged with a felony," Hammet says. "And so, a felony means you lose your right to vote. So, you could lose your right to vote for trying to help people vote."

Elections officials rely on these volunteers

As a result, Hammet suspended his organization's voter registration drives just as they would ordinarily be ratcheting up to register hundreds of incoming college freshmen. Other organizations, including the League of Women Voters of Kansas, have shut down in-person registration drives too.

This knocks a big hole in efforts to register new voters because county elections officials rely on volunteer groups to do outreach.

"I don't have the staff that can go out to fairs and art events and set up a voter registration booth," says Douglass County Clerk Jamie Shew.

Shew says those events and other volunteer efforts are the best way to bring nonvoting citizens into the democratic process.

Loud Light volunteer Anita Austin says new voter registrations have slowed.
Frank Morris / KCUR
Loud Light staffer Anita Austin says new voter registrations have slowed.

Kansas Republicans who pushed the law say shutting down voter registration drives was not their intent. GOP state Sen. Larry Alley says the idea was to stop random actors from cloaking themselves in sham authority through the mail, like sending out fake ballot applications bearing official-looking seals.

There hasn't been a problem with volunteers pretending to be elections officials. And Alley says they can stay out of trouble simply by making their identities clear.

"We want a fair and a secure and a transparent election to make sure that when you cast your ballot, you feel that you cast your ballot and it's going to be counted," Alley says.

Of course, Kansas isn't the only state changing election laws this year. And critics say these Republican-led efforts have less to do with secure voting than they do driving down vote totals for Democratic candidates.

Tammy Patrick has been tracking an avalanche of election-related legislation for the nonpartisan group Democracy Fund.

Other states have similar bills

"There have been a little more than 3,000 bills introduced ... this legislative session, which is the most bills we've seen around election administration," Patrick says. "Many of them actually have included things very similar to the Kansas law."

That's new restrictions on who can register voters and how forms have to be submitted. Patrick says some new laws even criminalize minor clerical errors sometimes made by elections officials.

In Kansas, voter registration groups are suing to stop the new elections law and have asked for a temporary injunction against enforcing the provision creating a felony offense for appearing to be an election official.

In the meantime, new registrations have slowed, and Loud Light staffer Anita Austin is frustrated.

"I'm a Black woman and it matters a lot to me because Black people have been disenfranchised," Austin says, clipboard in hand. "It is common day voter suppression. You know, we used to be able to just say, Blacks can't vote, women can't vote. Nowadays we got to come up with weird laws, like you're impersonating an election official."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 26, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier web version of this story incorrectly identified Anita Austin as a volunteer with Loud Light. Austin is a paid staffer.
Frank Morris has supervised the reporters in KCUR's newsroom since 1999. In addition to his managerial duties, Morris files regularly with National Public Radio. He’s covered everything from tornadoes to tax law for the network, in stories spanning eight states. His work has won dozens of awards, including four national Public Radio News Directors awards (PRNDIs) and several regional Edward R. Murrow awards. In 2012 he was honored to be named "Journalist of the Year" by the Heart of America Press Club.