In Kansas, voter registration groups are suing to stop a new elections law. Some organizations have stopped doing voter drives for fear of charges being filed against their volunteers.



Across the country, 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. As Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, a new Kansas law has effectively shut down voter registration drives there.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: On college campuses, like the University of Kansas here in Lawrence, students are returning. And in a normal year, voter registration activists would be in high gear.

ANITA AUSTIN: Yes. Right out here, normally, there would be so many people, flyers, giveaways.

MORRIS: Anita Austin is with Loud Light, a Kansas group that promotes civic engagement. She's sporting a Loud Light shirt with vote in enormous letters on the back and clutching a clipboard. Normally, she says, she'd be signing up scores of incoming freshmen.

AUSTIN: Hundreds, hundreds - I mean, one year, we registered 300 just in one weekend. This year, that's a potential felony in the state of Kansas.

MORRIS: The felony offense of impersonating an elections official - but the law is vague and confusing. Loud Light president Davis Hammet says it criminalizes simply giving the impression of working for the government.

DAVIS HAMMET: 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. 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.

MORRIS: And that threat has killed voter registration drives here, according to Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas.

JACQUELINE LIGHTCAP: Out of caution for our members' safety, we have ceased voter registration in person as of July 1.

MORRIS: Republicans who pushed the law say that was not their intent. State Senator 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 by simply making their identities clear.

LARRY ALLEY: We want a fair and a secure and 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.

MORRIS: Critics say the goal of Republican elections law changes is to suppress votes, especially in Democratic-leaning areas. Tammy Patrick has been tracking an avalanche of legislation across the country for the nonpartisan group Democracy Fund.

TAMMY PATRICK: So 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. Many of them actually have included things very similar to the Kansas law.

MORRIS: So new restrictions on who can register voters and how forms have to be submitted and some new laws that even criminalize minor clerical errors sometimes made by election officials - in Kansas, voter registration groups are suing. In the meantime, KU freshmen aren't getting help registering, and activist Anita Austin is frustrated.

AUSTIN: I'm a Black woman, and it matters a lot to me because Black people have been disenfranchised. And 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.

MORRIS: Activists hope a Kansas judge will grant a temporary injunction against the law in time to register voters for local elections this fall and that the courts will ultimately clarify just how Kansas volunteers can safely register voters without risking prison time.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ORSTEN'S "FLEUR BLANCHE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


An earlier web version of this story incorrectly identified Anita Austin as a volunteer with Loud Light. Austin is a paid staffer.