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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Last-minute changes to voter ID law rejected

By DEB GRUVER
The Wichita Eagle

TOPEKA — A last-minute push to require proof of citizenship from new voters next year instead of in 2013 failed Wednesday after cantankerous debate, with one senator saying she was embarrassed for Secretary of State Kris Kobach and another saying she felt guilty for voting for the state's new voter ID law.

The Senate voted 15-23 against concurring with the House on a substitute for Senate Bill 129.

That means people registering to vote won't have to provide a birth certificate, passport or other citizenship proof until 2013 — after the 2012 presidential election.

Wednesday's vote also means that Kobach won't get the authority he sought to independently prosecute allegations of voter fraud.

The prosecutorial powers and 2012 birth certificate requirement were deleted before lawmakers approved a voter ID bill earlier in the session. Gov. Sam Brownback signed the bill into law on April 18.

The attempt to restore them as the session draws to a close offended some lawmakers.

Sen. Kelly Kultala, D-Kansas City, said she was "starting to get embarrassed" for Kobach, who made voter fraud a big part of his campaign.

Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, said, "I am sorry this has been brought to be concurred because I believe that we already have a system that is able to investigate reports of voter (fraud) and decide whether those cases will be charged."

She said she regretted voting for the voter ID bill. She called it "chilling," especially against people of color.

"I have felt guilty for voting on it all the weeks that we've been here. I do not believe there is voter fraud in this state," Schodorf said, admitting she was getting emotional about the issue.

But Sen. Steve Abrams, R-Arkansas City, spoke passionately in favor of the additions, arguing the Secretary of State's Office needs power to prosecute people who violate voter laws.

In response, Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, questioned Abrams about how many cases of voter fraud Kansas had in the last five years. Abrams answered, "I've been told there were seven."

Owens then questioned spending $65,000 — the estimate for how much the measure would have cost —"and expanding the functions of the secretary of state to criminal capacity for what in five years has been seven cases."

Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, said her constituents wanted tougher protection in place.

"I have received innumerable e-mails expressing the concern about the 2013 date and that there are many, many Kansas citizens who are concerned about the integrity of our ballot box and how important it is that they are not disenfranchised," Pilcher-Cook said.

Ernestine Krehbiel, president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said this week that the group was against requiring proof of citizenship on principle but especially against moving up implementation from 2013 to 2012.

Sen. Terrie Huntington, R-Fairway, who chairs the Senate Elections Committee, said the new law as it stands "puts Kansas at the forefront of election laws and goes farther than any other state to prevent voter fraud."

In a news release she sent after Wednesday's debate, Huntington said she was open to additional provisions but only with due diligence.

"The last thing we want to do is make changes that haven't been vetted by the Legislature and haven't been opened up for public input," Huntington said.

Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, said there were too many unknowns, including the cost to local elections offices.

"We owe it to taxpayers to get to the bottom of these questions before we move forward with any major changes," Morris said. "The Legislature should have all the facts and know the tax implications for our communities before making a decision."

Reach Deb Gruver at 785-296-3006 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com.

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