A key state senator is blocking a committee vote on Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s legislation to require new Kansas voters to prove their U.S. citizenship ahead of this year’s presidential election, possibly dooming the measure.
Chairwoman Terrie Huntington, R-Fairway, said Friday that she doesn’t plan to have her Senate Ethics and Elections Committee meet again this year. The committee had a hearing on Kobach’s bill Thursday, its last scheduled meeting of the year, but adjourned without acting on the measure.
“The committee, it’s not their choice to meet again,” Huntington said. “We are through.”
Legislators enacted a law last year requiring people registering to vote for the first time in Kansas to provide proof of their citizenship, but it doesn’t take effect until January. Kobach wants to move up the effective date to June 15, arguing it should be in place ahead of the surge in registration that will precede the November presidential election.
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Kobach’s bill passed the House last month, but even some of his fellow Republicans in the Senate have been cool to the proposal. He contends it will prevent illegal immigrants and other noncitizens from registering, combating election fraud.
Critics of voter ID laws say they are meant to keep turnout down, particularly among students, minorities, the poor and the elderly. Kobach’s office said it found 32 noncitizens registered to vote in Kansas last year, out of about 1.7 million registered voters. There have been fewer than 10 reported cases in Kansas over the past decade in which a noncitizen voted or attempted to vote.
Kobach contends the committee could easily meet again, even if it convened in a hallway, as committees occasionally do when lawmakers’ schedules are hectic. He said a large majority of Kansans support voter ID initiatives, and legislators should be listening to them.
“If they choose to move the bill forward, they can,” Kobach said.
But the Senate's top Republican leaders, President Steve Morris, of Hugoton, and Majority Leader Jay Emler, of Lindsborg, backed Huntington up. Emler cited a legislative deadline that required most committees to finish their business by Friday, and Morris noted that Huntington supported initiatives Kobach pushed last year, including a law requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.
Kobach's conservative GOP allies also could ask the Senate to pull the bill from Huntington's committee, but that would require a vote of 24 of 40 members, rather than the 21 votes needed to pass a bill. Together, moderate Republicans and Democrats, who generally are skeptical of Kobach's proposal, control the chamber.
Kobach has expressed frustration as a $40 million computer upgrade at the state Division of Vehicles has become a crucial issue for senators wary of his proposal. He has said it shouldn't be an issue, arguing that the state could move forward regardless, even if the upgrade would make administering the proof-of-citizenship rule easier.
Kansas will require all people seeking or renewing a license to show whether they're U.S. citizens. When the second phase of the upgrade is done, the division is supposed to be able to automatically transfer electronic copies of birth certificates and other documents proving citizenship to election officials.
Initially, officials said the second phase of the upgrade should be done by June, but the committee learned Wednesday – at its second-to-last meeting of the year – that it wouldn't be completed until Aug. 1.
“That was the big issue,” Huntington said. “We waited until the last minute, until we could find out the latest information regarding the computer system.”
And Morris said: “I don't think taxpayers want to see additional time or money spent on a bill that can't be implemented.”
Kobach came to Thursday's meeting with proposed amendments to his bill that he said would make the computer upgrade's status irrelevant. But testimony from opponents of his bill took up most of the committee's hour-long meeting, preventing members from considering the changes.