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Voter registration organizations say new laws create legal jeopardy

Kansas, Missouri, Florida among states with laws that voter registration groups say put volunteers at risk

A woman with long brown hair wearing a face mask checks something on a clipboard that says “Register to Vote” on the back of it.

A volunteer from Brooklyn Voters Alliance checks a woman’s application after she registered to vote in September 2020 in New York City.

Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s weekly newsletter. Sign up here

National Voter Registration Day is on Tuesday. Finally, a chance to write about something noncontroversial about elections. 

[Cue record scratch sound].

Never mind. 

It’s true that voter registration work has long been held up as nonpartisan civic good. But that’s an oversimplified view. 

Over the years, many a court battle has been fought over state laws that voting advocates say unnecessarily restrict their registration work. And the new slew of voting laws passed by states is sparking new litigation: Nonpartisan groups like the League of Women Voters say some include provisions making it impossible for them to do in-person voter registration work in some states without risking criminal penalties.

“Our work is getting a little tougher, to do what we’ve done for more than 100 years,” said Celina Stewart, chief counsel and senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters, who said the League’s Vote 411 voting-assistance website is still available in states where registering voters in person has become more fraught.

Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, a Kansas nonprofit with a mission of increasing youth civic participation, has joined with the League in a lawsuit to overturn provisions of a 2021 Kansas law. Hammet said the law has brought the group’s voter registration work to a complete halt. “Leading up to the 2020 election, we had registered almost 10,000 people to vote, predominantly young people,” he said. “And then you get to now, and in the last year we registered, like, none, right? It’s wild.”

The backers of the laws say it isn’t their intention to derail voter registration drives and that the laws are intended to prevent fraud and protect voters. Nonetheless, at least some experts say that like everything else to do with elections right now, partisan impulses may be at play. 

“The common wisdom these days is that higher registration helps Democrats and hurts Republicans, even though I think that common wisdom could well be wrong,” Rick Hasen, a UCLA law professor and expert in election law, said in an email. “But that understanding has animated some recent legal changes that make it harder to register voters in some places (often with the false claim that such laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud).”

Besides its suit in Kansas, League of Women Voters chapters in Missouri and Florida, together with other groups that engage in voter registration work in those states, are also suing to overturn the parts of laws they say are interfering with their efforts. Danielle Lang, senior director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center, who is representing the League and other plaintiffs in Missouri, said the legal provisions in question are “criminalizing what we think of as good civic participation activity.” 

“Encouraging your community members to register to vote falls under any conceivable understanding of what the First Amendment protects,” she said.

For example, the Missouri law, passed in May, includes a provision prohibiting any type of “compensation” for those soliciting voter registration applications, unless they work for the government. It also requires anyone who assists with more than 10 voter registration applications to both be a registered voter and to register with the secretary of state’s office as “voter registration solicitors,” and be subject to criminal penalties. 

In announcing its lawsuit, the League of Women Voters of Missouri said the prohibition on compensating volunteers was so vague, offering free pizza could violate it. 

In Kansas, the 2021 law at issue made “engaging in conduct that would cause another person to believe a person engaging in such conduct is an election official” a felony. Voter registration groups, including the League, say that language is too vague. The groups halted their voter registration work and sued. The state argued it would only criminalize those intentionally misrepresenting themselves as election officials. A Kansas appeals court in June declined to block the law, a decision the groups are appealing

“Most of the groups involved have been in this chaotic state because it’s our understanding that if we send people out, they could be charged with a felony,” Hammett said. “We could be sending people out to lose their right to vote and go to jail.” 

In Florida earlier this year, a federal judge set aside several provisions of a new voting law, including one requiring third-party groups doing voter registration work to warn prospective voters that their registration application might not be turned in before registration deadlines. An appeals court stayed his decision, and the case is still pending. 

Stewart said the League’s litigation load has “exploded” since she joined in 2018 as it pushes back against restrictive state laws, including, but not exclusively, those with provisions specifically affecting voter registration work. In fact, the group is launching a new web page to better allow the public to see the cases it’s involved with, she said. 

Stewart stressed that the League is nonpartisan, with chapters in states regardless of their partisan slants, and isn’t seeking to register voters in one party or another. 

“It’s more about engaging more people in the franchise,” she said. “It’s just really unfortunate at this time that there’s so many claims of voter harvesting and voter registration harvesting because the reality is at this time there’s no proof of that.” 

Back Then

By Jessica Huseman

Remember Florida after 2000? Sometimes I like to read articles about that debacle, if only to remind myself that election meltdowns aren’t all that new. Here’s a doozy of a first sentence from a 2002 New York Times article: “Florida appeared to have staved off another election calamity today, but at a cost of millions of dollars and with police departments overseeing the voting.” Police departments! Overseeing the vote! It continues, “...voters experienced relatively few problems today because the police ran the election. They organized everything from the training of poll workers to the securing of ballots, although they were not inside the polling places.” It wasn’t an easy task. One police director told the Times “that the task was broader and more complicated than managing a combination of the Super Bowl, a hurricane and a papal visit.” 

New From Votebeat

A new lawsuit alleges Texas-based conservative nonprofit True the Vote targeted a small election vendor with a racist, defamatory campaign, citing the group’s own public claims that it stole data from Konnech, Inc., a small Michigan-based company that makes software to manage poll workers. A federal judge quickly granted Konnech’s request for a temporary restraining order against the group and its leaders, Natalia Contreras reported for Votebeat Texas.

In Other Voting News

  • A Georgia prosecutor told the Washington Post that “serious crimes” may have been committed as part of efforts to overturn the 2020 election there. Fulton County District Attorney Fani T. Willis has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation of the efforts by former President Donald Trump and his allies, and said some individuals could serve jail time, though no one has yet been charged. She said she expects a decision this fall as to whether to seek Trump’s testimony. 
  • In New Hampshire, new requirements that so-called “overvotes” be counted by hand, as well as increased numbers of write-in votes, meant this week’s state primary results took longer. At least some voters wrote in the name of a candidate who was already on the ballot, forcing election officials to hand-count their ballots and prompting at least one town moderator to speculate that those voters were spurred to do so because they distrust voting machines, the Eagle-Tribune reported
  • Federal agents investigating an alleged breach of voting machines last year in Colorado seized the cell phone of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a prominent promoter of election conspiracy theories, Lindell said on his online TV show. Federal agents confirmed serving a warrant at that location. Lindell said the agents asked him about Tina Peters, the Mesa, Colo., clerk who is under indictment in connection with the breach. 
  • In Arizona, GOP gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem are appealing a federal judge’s dismissal of a lawsuit they filed seeking to mandate hand-counting of ballots in the November election. 
  • Election offices are committing more time, money, and other resources to combating misinformation, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Carrie Levine is Votebeat’s story editor and is based in Washington, D.C. Contact Carrie at clevine@votebeat.org.

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