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Derby, Colwich elections may be small preview of things to come under new voter law

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Monday, Sep. 30, 2013, at 9:15 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2013, at 8:22 a.m.

As Derby and Colwich voters go to the polls to decide tax and bond issues for their cities over the next week, 120 prospective voters will be sidelined for failure to provide proof of citizenship to election officials.

The elections are the first to be held in Sedgwick County since Jan. 1, when a new law took effect requiring voter registrants to provide citizenship documents – generally a birth certificate or passport – or have their voting privileges suspended.

But while the numbers of voters involved are small, opponents say it’s a preview of what will happen when much larger elections come around, if things don’t change.

Those who support the law say it’s a meaningful hedge against voting fraud and that anybody who really wants to vote can and should get the required documents.

More than 17,000 prospective voters’ registrations currently are in “suspense” statewide as a result of the law, designed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach and passed by the Legislature to prevent ineligible people from voting and possibly changing the outcome of elections.

‘It’s just wrong’

Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, is a staunch opponent of the new law. He said he doesn’t think it makes sense to exclude 120 voters over missing paperwork when only two noncitizens have been proven to have illegally cast ballots in Sedgwick County in the past 10 years.

He said the suspended voters could make a big difference in a light-turnout special election in a small city.

“It’s frustrating and disappointing when you look at the suppression of the vote,” said Ward, who unsuccessfully sought to change the law during a special session of the Legislature last month.

His amendment to follow federal standards and allow sworn affidavits to establish voters’ citizenship was ruled out of order in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. A nearly identical measure by Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, also D-Wichita, met the same fate in the Senate.

Of the 107 suspended voters in Derby and 13 in Colwich, Ward said: “That’s 120 people who are not going to be allowed to participate in an important local government issue. This is the direct result of not taking care of this during the special session.”

‘Personal responsibility’

However, Rep. Pete DeGraaf, R-Mulvane, who represents a large part of Derby, said if people can’t vote, “they can solve the problem” by getting the required documents.

“No. 1, they need to take personal responsibility and get off suspension,” he said. “Most people have a copy of their birth certificate. It’s an important document to keep with you.”

Those who need one can get it in about two weeks by contacting the state where they were born, providing proof of identity and paying a fee, DeGraaf said. The fees for a replacement birth certificate generally range from $9 to $30, depending on the state, according to data compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics.

DeGraaf said that when someone obtains a certificate, it’s a higher level of proof than swearing out a statement because a state will check to make sure that someone was actually born when and where they say they were.

“You’re getting third-party verification,” he said.

DeGraaf said people who have problems getting the proper documents can call him on his cellphone at 316-613-1899, and he’ll try to help them get through any red tape.

Vote starts slow

Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said her office sent notices to voters when their registrations were suspended and has tried to call those who provided phone numbers.

In addition, she said, she sent sample ballots and instructions on how to complete registration to the suspended voters in Derby and Colwich in preparation for the Oct. 8 election.

The suspended voters will have until the end of the day Monday to submit their proof and to vote, Lehman said.

Derby’s ballot question would extend a one-half percent local sales tax, with the proceeds to go to parks and recreation, library maintenance and operating costs, and fire and rescue. There are 13,952 registered voters in the city limits, Lehman said.

Colwich is asking voters for permission to issue $1.65 million in bonds to build a swimming pool. There, 791 voters are eligible, Lehman said.

Voting got off to a slow start with advance voting opening at a single location: Lehman’s office at the Historic Courthouse in downtown Wichita. From Wednesday through Monday, nine voters cast their ballots at the office – seven from Derby and two from Colwich, election officials said. Lehman said she did not expect a lot of people to vote at that office because of the distance to the communities involved.

She said she expects voting to pick up in Derby with the opening of an advance voting site in the city for three days before the election. That site, at Woodlawn United Methodist Church, 431 S. Woodlawn, will be open noon to 7 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Colwich is too small to justify an advance voting site, so most voters will probably wait until the Oct. 8 election day, when they’ll be able to vote at the city building, Lehman said.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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