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Abortion opponents push to remove ballot drop boxes ahead of Kansas amendment vote

Kansas City Star logo Kansas City Star 7/26/2022 Chance Swaim, The Kansas City Star
A ballot drop box for ballots at the Evergreen Community Center in Wichita. © Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle/The Wichita Eagle/Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle A ballot drop box for ballots at the Evergreen Community Center in Wichita.

A coalition of abortion opponents is using false voter-fraud conspiracy theories to pressure local officials into restricting voting access ahead of the nation’s first post-Roe statewide referendum on abortion rights.

The group is urging Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Angela Caudillo to remove ballot drop boxes, especially six drop boxes in the district held by Democratic Commissioner Lacey Cruse, who has been vocally opposed to the Value Them Both amendment, which would remove the right to an abortion from the Kansas Constitution.

Their efforts have — for now — been thwarted by state and county Republican officials who reject their claims of voter fraud and say Kansas has some of the most secure elections in the nation.

That could change. The coalition’s leader, Donna Lippoldt of the Culture Shield Network, sees the fall of Roe and the upcoming amendment vote as opportunities to steer the Republican Party — and thus, most of Kansas’ government — farther to the right.

Lippoldt, a politically connected minister and faith adviser to former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, wants to elect officials — most notably Kris Kobach as attorney general and Mike Brown as secretary of state — who deny the results of the 2020 presidential election and have pushed for changes that would make it harder for Kansans to vote in the future.

The Aug. 2 primary is the first prize. After that, the group plans to mobilize a network of church leaders to install a Christian-right majority on the Kansas Supreme Court, which affirmed in 2019 that the state’s constitution includes a right to abortion. Six of seven judges are up for a retention vote in November.

Earlier this month, Lippoldt and her coalition told commissioners that Sedgwick County — which President Donald Trump won by 12 percentage points — is especially susceptible to voting fraud because it has “unmanned” ballot drop boxes and because the county accepted a grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life that was partially funded by Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg.

Members of the group — at least 50 have sent written public comments to Sedgwick County — say they’re concerned that the ballot drop boxes, which are under lock and key and 24/7 video camera surveillance, will be used to cast phony votes against the amendment. They offer no evidence other than a pro-Trump political film “2000 Mules,” which is silent on Sedgwick County but uses misleading data to allege a widespread conspiracy to stuff drop boxes with fraudulent ballots to steal the 2020 election from Trump.

Sedgwick County has 14 drop boxes scattered throughout the county’s 1,009 square miles. All are in front of government buildings, including city administration buildings, libraries, fire stations, the courthouse, the health department and recreation centers.

Group members said they learned about election fraud in Kansas from direct communications with Kobach, Brown and Johnson County Sheriff Calvin Hayden, who has been accused by that county’s top attorney of trying to interfere in the Aug. 2 election.

In Sedgwick County, the $816,000 Center for Tech and Civic Life grant helped fund extra voting machines, printers, COVID-19 hazard pay for poll workers, security cameras to monitor streetside boxes for people to drop off mail ballots to help avoid delays at the Post Office and other supplies for the 2020 election amid the pandemic.

“We don’t really trust Mark Zuckerberg,” Lippoldt told the county commission. “And so it’s awkward for us to imagine our county decided to take the money and use it.”

“I understand that our current Secretary of State Scott Schwab does not believe there’s a need for concern,” Steve Decker told the commission. “He’s even categorized people like me as domestic bad actors.”

Decker is Lippoldt’s biblical citizenship coach through the Patriot Academy, a training program in hundreds of churches across the nation that promotes the idea that America was founded on Christian values. He also is an operational excellence project manager for the Koch-run advocacy group Stand Together Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Wichita billionaire Charles Koch’s influential network of business and political organizations.

Decker told the Sedgwick County Commission and election commissioner that the county should get rid of drop boxes or at least monitor them in person during business hours and lock them closed overnight, which has been adopted in other Kansas counties.

“I’ve been concerned about election integrity for some time,” Decker told commissioners. “In particular with the vote we have coming up Aug. 2. It’s a critical vote. We want to make sure that — I’ll just say I know what our opposition is capable of.”

But two Sedgwick County commissioners who are Republican and oppose abortion — Jim Howell and David Dennis — jumped to the county’s defense, citing concerns that election-fraud conspiracy theories could encourage GOP voters to sit this one out.

A recent poll predicted the Value Them Both amendment is leading by a narrow margin.

Howell said widespread voting fraud in Kansas would be nearly impossible given its election security measures, including signature verification, identification requirements and secure drop boxes that are under 24-hour camera surveillance. And even if there was such an effort, he said, why wouldn’t the fraudsters just turn in the ballots through the mail?

“People saying there’s such widespread fraud, you’re telling people: ‘Don’t vote because your vote doesn’t matter,’” he said. “I desperately want people to vote, and if people think their vote doesn’t matter, they may not show up.”

Howell even went to Decker’s house to present to the group a 90-slide PowerPoint that attempts to debunk various conspiracy theories about Kansas elections.

Lippoldt, who attended Howell’s presentation, said the group remains unconvinced.

“I’m not sure they can be convinced that we have secure elections and that the election wasn’t stolen,” Howell said. “It’s almost like it’s willful ignorance about our election laws. And they just think I’m naive and gullible.”

Asked whether her group is positioning itself to challenge the results of the Aug. 2 amendment if it fails — as Trump supporters have challenged 2020 results since his defeat — Lippoldt said, “Wow, that’s never even entered my mind. I think that what we’re trying to do is, preemptively, we were hoping that the election commissioner would listen to us.”

Caudillo, the election commissioner, told The Eagle that all of Sedgwick County’s 14 drop boxes will be open until 7 p.m. on Election Day. She posted additional information about election security in the Wichita area on the county’s election website.

“Ballots are collected daily by a bipartisan team of election workers, accounted for on chain of custody logs, and returned to the election office for processing,” she told The Eagle. “Ballot drop boxes in Sedgwick County are subject to video surveillance (and) all drop boxes are visible by video camera.”

“I feel extremely confident,” Dennis said of Sedgwick County’s election security. “Do I believe that our ballots are absolutely accurate? Absolutely.”

Who’s pushing?

Lippoldt’s coalition pushing for voting restrictions is not just a group of 50 random people, according to a check of publicly available sources on the people who spoke at the commission meeting and submitted written comments, many copied and pasted from a newsletter sent out by Culture Shield.

They include Amy Siple, a Gov. Laura Kelly appointee to a state board and prominent national speaker on healthcare; Eric Smith, the founding president of the Great Plains Association of Christian Schools; Charlie Mullen, a former Wichita Public Schools administrator; one of the nation’s preeminent Creationists and founder of the Kolbe Center in Virginia; multiple people with ties to Koch Industries, including its former head of IT support; and a compliance officer of the Greater Wichita YMCA.

It also includes prayer organizers for the Wichita Catholic Diocese; a test engineer at Wichita State University’s National Institute for Aviation Research; a Republican precinct committeewoman; a Derby substitute teacher; real estate developers; a pastor; a Kapaun Mount Carmel High School teacher and former member of Brownback’s Sedgwick County steering committee; an Airbus engineer; a treasurer at a nondenominational Wichita church; and a former spokesperson for Serra Club of Wichita Downtown, an organization that supports and promotes religious vocations such as priesthood within the Catholic Church.

Lippoldt and the others blame Trump’s 2020 election defeat on widespread voting fraud — a lie spread by Trump and his supporters that roughly 70% of Republicans now believe, polling shows.

She said she believes the election was stolen from Trump. “I don’t have any doubt in my mind that it was,” she said in a phone interview with The Eagle.

Howell, who is running for re-election without a primary opponent, said he thinks a “silent majority” of Republicans agree with him that Kansas has secure elections.

Howell said the conspiracy theories go beyond the “2000 Mules” film. He also blames the spread of disinformation on MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, former Ohio high school teacher Douglas Frank and former U.S. Army Captain Seth Keshel, who have used debunked junk science to spread election lies in statehouses across the country — including in Kansas and Missouri — to push for new voting laws. A report by Keshel alleges the 2020 presidential election results, based on previous elections, had indicators of “strong/rampant fraud.”

“At the end of the day, their data is based on what they think the results should have been, and they calculate what they think the error is,” Howell told the Culture Shield group. “That’s not smart.”

The claims in Keshel’s report have been flagged as “false” by the Associated Press. His model attempted to predict the outcome of the 2020 election, comparing previous new voter registration numbers going back to 2004 correlated with presidential election results. Where actual results differed from his model, he suggested fraud was the cause, without evidence.

“They fail to recognize the fact that politics change,” Howell said. “Here’s what’s happening in Johnson County and Sedgwick County: We’re becoming more Democratic. We are. You can see it everywhere because people didn’t like Trump.

“They didn’t like Michael O’Donnell, either; they voted for Sarah Lopez. They didn’t like Richard Ranzau; they voted for Lacey Cruse. . . . They didn’t like Kris Kobach; they voted for Laura Kelly. At the end of the day, if they didn’t like Trump, they voted for Biden. It’s not rocket science.”

Roe snowball

For Lippoldt and her followers, passing the Value Them Both amendment would be a victory in a decades-long crusade against abortion.

Lippoldt protested in front of Wichita abortion clinics in the Summer of Mercy in 1991, and she stayed — logging multiple shifts a week outside abortion clinics, seeking to pursuade women entering the building not to have an abortion — until abortion doctor George Tiller’s assassination in 2009.

Her stated goal is to eliminate the separation between the Christian church and state, which she claims shouldn’t exist in the first place. She is the National Governors’ Prayer Team leader for Kansas and the director for the Kansas branch of the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation.

Lippoldt’s moral crusade extends beyond abortion.

She has advocated against sex education in schools and pushed to pull books from shelves at public libraries.

In 2007, she spearheaded a successful campaign to block casinos and slot machines in Wichita as director of “No Casinos in Sedgwick County.” Her LinkedIn bio says she “wrote the manual on church activation” that mobilized up to 275 churches in Wichita to defeat the ballot question.

Now, she leads a weekly Culture Shield Sunday morning prayer call that blends politics and government with prayer. The call often features a guest from the Kansas Legislature, such as Sen. Mark Steffen, a Hutchinson Republican recently recorded advocating for a ban on abortion if Value Them Both passes, or former U.S. ambassador for religious freedom Brownback, the most frequent guest on the phone prayer meetings.

This past Sunday, Kobach led a prayer for the group that focused on the Value Them Both amendment. Kobach, former Kansas secretary of state and propagator of Trump’s claims of widespread voting fraud even before the 2020 election, prayed for divine intervention in the upcoming Kansas election.

“Heavenly father, we just pray that you would intervene in Kansas and that you would close the ears of those in the public who are susceptible to the lies of the enemy,” he said. “And we would pray that your truth would pierce through to their hearts and their minds and that they would realize that the only just answer and the only just action when voting on August 2 is to vote ‘Yes.’”

Value Them Both is a popular topic for the Culture Shield prayer group. The mood has been celebratory in the weeks leading up to the vote, recordings of the July 17 and July 24 prayer meetings show.

On July 17, Culture Shield formally declared the summer of 2022 the “Summer of Revival.” Lippoldt told her followers that the country is headed in the right direction after the fall of Roe.

“Now we are not under that national curse any longer, other things begin to just roll down like this huge snowball,” Lippoldt said.

But she also warned that evil forces are working against the Value Them Both campaign.

“As you can imagine, there’s a lot of witchcraft going on because we’re talking about the shedding of innocent blood, the blood that the enemy — that Satan — wants most, is the most innocent blood out there, and that is the blood of babies in the womb,” she said.

She said abortions are blood sacrifices to Satan and warned that a van full of teenage witches is traveling the state to steal “Vote Yes” yard signs.

“A green van going through the towns filled with girls who have been deceived, pulling out the Value Them Both signs,” she said. “The deception is so very very sad. So this is witchcraft.

“Fighting the witchcraft is important,” Lippoldt added.

As a remedy, she suggested driving around town with the windows down blasting the Christian rock song “I speak Jesus,” shaking a tambourine or blowing into a ram’s horn.

“Just release praise to get rid of witchcraft,” she said. “Because that’s exactly what this is.”

She also urged everyone on the prayer call to avoid using Sedgwick County’s drop boxes for “the most important vote in our state” — the ballot question on abortion rights.

“Those of you that feel like you might know someone or you have applied for an advance ballot, please take it down to the office yourself,” Lippoldt said.

Next target: Supreme Court

Lippoldt has promised to re-activate her group of church leaders across the state to oppose five out of six Kansas Supreme Court judges who are up for a retention vote in November. She said Caleb Stegall, Brownback’s lone appointee on the state’s highest court, should be retained.

Conservatives have tried to oust the justices before — over dissatisfaction with decisions on school funding and death penalty cases — but failed.

That was before the court issued a decision in 2019 — referred to as the Hodes decision — that held the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights “allows a woman to make her own decisions regarding her body, health, family formation, and family life — decisions that can include whether to continue a pregnancy.”

The decision allows government regulation of abortion, but only when it has “a compelling interest and has narrowly tailored its actions to that interest.”

On July 17, Lippoldt called the Hodes decision “overreach” and falsely claimed the decision “said that all regulations, all inspections of abortion clinics, a woman’s right to know — all those things were abolished with that [decision]. And now we have to reinstate all of those things to protect women and to save the lives of little baby boys and girls.”

It’s unclear how the Value Them Both vote will shape the politics surrounding the retention election. If the amendment fails, placing abortion opponents on the Kansas Supreme Court would be the anti-abortion lobby’s best hope of overturning Hodes.

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