An Election Day petition campaign against Gov. Sam Brownback and others has raised the hackles of Republicans, who say it’s thinly veiled electioneering at the polls.
But the petition circulators say they aren’t electioneering because the governor isn’t on the ballot and they have a First Amendment right to petition their government.
The petitioners, organized by former gubernatorial candidate Jennifer Winn, showed up outside polling places with card tables and signs reading “Stop Brownback, sign the petition,” with a sticker saying “#saveourkids.”
The petition also seeks a grand jury to be called to investigate two judges and officials with the Department for Children and Families. Backers of the petition have said for years that the department has abused its authority over child-in-need-of-care cases and improperly removed children from their homes.
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Republican candidates and officials objected to the petition drive through their social media accounts, and the topic quickly blew up on local talk radio.
We have concluded it is a violation of Kansas law.
Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state
Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, said of the petition drive: “We have concluded it is a violation of Kansas law.”
He said it’s illegal on two fronts.
First, Kobach said, the petition drive is electioneering, because the petitions and the signs attracting people to them are “pretty strongly intended” to disparage the Republican Party through criticism of Brownback. He said state law banning electioneering within 250 feet of a polling place doesn’t just apply to candidates but also to parties and causes.
Second, he said, the petitioners are, in his opinion, violating a state law against interfering with voters on their way to the polls.
He said his office has communicated that to local law enforcement, both verbally and in writing, requesting authorities remove the petitioners from locations near polling places. However, petitioners remained on-site late Tuesday afternoon.
Winn said she had been on the phone throughout the day with the Wichita Police Department.
(Police) are not going to mandate the 250 foot rule to us regardless of what Kobach is issuing because they don’t want to be sued. They’re not going to take liability for his decisions.
Jennifer Winn, former candidate for governor
“They are not going to mandate the 250-foot rule to us regardless of what Kobach is issuing, because they don’t want to be sued,” Winn said. “They’re not going to take liability for his decisions.”
Kobach’s opinion appears to conflict with a separate legal opinion by the Sedgwick County Counselor’s Office, which reviewed the petitions last week.
Assistant County Counselor Michael North wrote that “The petitions we have seen ... would not be considered electioneering,” except for one targeting a judge who was on Tuesday’s ballot. That judge’s name was removed from the petitions being circulated Tuesday.
North did say that petitioners could be removed if they interfered with voting or if the owner of the property housing the polling place objected to their presence.
Winn said her group was careful to not express support or opposition to any candidate on the ballot this year.
“We don’t talk about anyone on the ballot. We don’t have any type of clothing, any type of buttons. I didn’t even allow bumper stickers (on volunteers’ cars),” Winn said. “Nobody’s name on our petition sits on that ballot.”
Winn said they’ve seen a positive response from voters. She estimated they had received about 2,000 signatures by 2:30 p.m.
“We’ve had moments where we’ve literally had lines, especially this morning,” Winn said. “We expect 5 o’clock to obviously change that, when everybody gets off work and comes to vote. It’s absolutely been overwhelming,”
Winn said she had been planning to do a grand jury petition for several months.