D.C. mail ballot non-profit stokes confusion for Kansas voters, backlogs in offices

Christel Deskins

When Cynthia Herron received a mail-in ballot application from the Center for Voter Information (CVI) in early August, she thought it seemed official enough. The request form, sent from a P.O. box in Springfield, Missouri, had Herron’s name and address already typed out. So she signed and returned it […]

When Cynthia Herron received a mail-in ballot application from the Center for Voter Information (CVI) in early August, she thought it seemed official enough.

The request form, sent from a P.O. box in Springfield, Missouri, had Herron’s name and address already typed out. So she signed and returned it in a prepaid envelope addressed to the Johnson County Election Office.

The Overland Park investment advisor was confused when, three weeks later, she opened her mailbox to find a vote-by-mail request form from the county. Worried that her initial request had not been accepted, Herron sent that one back too.

When a third ballot application showed up in the mail last week, this one again from CVI, Herron began to suspect she was being intentionally misled.

“I have participated in the mail-in ballots in the past and have never had applications sent from this Center for Voter Information group and have never received duplicate applications from the Johnson County Election Office,” she said.

CVI and its sister organization, the Voter Participation Center (VPC), claim to operate the nation’s largest mail-based and digital voter engagement programs. CVI sent registered Kansas voters more than 800,000 official mail-in ballot requests in August. An additional 991,000 applications will go out this month.

In all, the Washington-based nonprofits plan to put 65 million pieces into the mail for voters and prospective voters in 27 states this month. That includes nearly 60,000 registration applications in Kansas and 177,000 in Missouri, said Tom Lopach, CEO of both organizations.

“With COVID-19 impacting elections, we have a responsibility to do all we can to safely increase voter turnout amid this uncertain time,” Lopach said in an email. “We feel it is vital to keep voters safe and to bring democracy to eligible voters’ doorsteps.”

But CVI and VPC have been criticized by election officials in multiple states for sending mailings to people who aren’t actually eligible to vote, or who are already registered. They say the result is confusion in an election year already rife with conflicting and misleading information.

In June, CVI was forced to recall 80,000 invalid vote-by-mail request forms in North Carolina, where state law requires every field of a ballot application to be filled out by the voter. CVI later mailed out 80,000 blank ballot applications to North Carolina voters.

CVI’s letters say that voters who have already requested a mail-in ballot don’t need to submit another application. This disclaimer, which appears in the top right corner of an informational sheet, is displayed in the same color and font size as most of the text on the page.

Katie Koupal, a spokesperson for the Kansas Secretary of State Office, said the official appearance of the enclosed applications persuades voters to sign and return them, even if they’ve already applied to vote by mail.

“It creates a tremendous backlog — especially in a year where we’re seeing very high advance ballot application requests,” she said.

‘Trays and trays of these applications’

Johnson County Election Commissioner Connie Schmidt said voters had already returned well over 100,000 mail-in ballot requests before CVI forms hit mailboxes. She estimated that as many as 30,000 third-party applications have now been sent to her office.

“We have trays and trays of these applications that are being sent in by voters who have already submitted an application for a mail ballot in November,” Schmidt said.

Dialing the Johnson County Election Office’s phone number now triggers an automated message telling voters they can disregard ballot request forms from CVI if they’ve already submitted an application.

Schmidt said more than 600 confused voters called the office in the day and a half after the first wave of mailings.

Kansas law, however, requires election offices to process all ballot requests, even duplicates.

“We have heard that some voters have received two applications from the same place, some of them three, and it is continuing to create voter confusion,” Schmidt said.

Lopach did not respond directly when asked if sending multiple ballot applications is worth the potential confusion it causes voters who have already applied.

“Sometimes a registered voter will hear from us a few times,” he said. “We do this intentionally, since voters often need a friendly prompt to respond in time, and we know that waves of mail produce a higher response rate.”

Lopach said voters who have already received multiple ballot applications from CVI may be contacted again this month when the nonprofit sends out almost 1 million additional forms.

“If we know that someone already has signed up for a ballot application, we take them off of future mailings,” he said.

Voters can also opt out by emailing a code on the informational sheet accompanying the request form to [email protected]

More stress for a strained system?

Lopach said that his group’s outreach is toward potential voters who are under-represented in the political process.

“CVI primarily sends mailings to members of the Rising American Electorate — people of color, young people and unmarried women, many of whom have historically been under-represented in our democracy,” said Lopach, a former lobbyist and chief of staff to Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Gov. Steve Bullock.

While these groups skew Democratic, he said CVI doesn’t select its recipients based on party affiliation.

A 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, CVI’s website describes itself as nonpartisan. Data from the Center for Responsive Politics shows the group has spent $38,481 advocating for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden through campaign mailers and consulting.

VPC, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, was founded in 2003 as Women’s Voices Women Vote before changing its name and expanding its mission in 2011.

Herron, the Overland Park voter, said she isn’t convinced CVI has good intentions.

“I question the agenda of straining an already strained mail-in voting system,” she said.

“If they’re really interested in making more people available to the voting process, why are they not taking responsibility for the confusion they’re creating?”

Koupal from the Secretary of State’s Office said voters won’t be penalized for submitting multiple requests to vote by mail.

“From a practical standpoint, voters will only be given one ballot,” Koupal said.

“We appreciate that they’re being proactive and would rather be safe than sorry, but if there’s any doubt as to whether or not they’ve sent it in and it’s been accepted, just go ahead and give your local election office a call.”

Schmidt said the volume of vote-by-mail applications shouldn’t affect the rate at which people are sent their advance ballots.

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©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

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