Sen. Wagle: Kansas lawmakers won’t discuss proof-of-citizenship law in special session

08/14/2013 6:53 PM

08/15/2013 6:57 AM

The Kansas Legislature won’t consider changes to a potentially unconstitutional voter proof-of-citizenship law when it meets in special session early next month, the Senate president said this week.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said she sees it as an important matter, but one that can wait until the regular session.

“We will address that issue in January,” she said.

For the special session that begins Sept. 3, she vowed to keep her chamber focused on the primary reason legislators have been called back to Topeka: rewriting the state’s Hard 50 criminal sentencing law in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court case striking down a nearly identical Virginia statute.

While the Senate is also expected to consider confirming some judicial appointments by Gov. Sam Brownback, “We’re not going to allow this session to be dragged off course,” Wagle said.

“We need to keep this session to two or three days,” she said. “If we allow one legislator to bring forth a bill and we open up for debate on other issues, that might never end.”

It may not be that easy to quell at least a short debate on the proof-of-citizenship law.

Two Wichita legislators, Rep. Jim Ward and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, have said they plan to try for a floor amendment on the proof-of-citizenship requirement as the Hard 50 correction bill goes through their chambers.

The lawmakers, both Democrats, said they think voting rights should be given the same consideration as criminal sentencing law and for the same reason – that Kansas law is likely unconstitutional following U.S. Supreme Court decisions striking down similar laws elsewhere.

Ward had speculated that legislative leaders might try to prevent a prolonged floor fight over voting rights by passing the Hard 50 bill through the more conservative Senate and presenting it to the House as a yes-no question. House leaders did that numerous times in the closing days of this year’s regular session.

However, Wagle said it’s her understanding that the Hard 50 bill will be put up for debate and possible amendments in both the House and Senate.

January marked the beginning of enforcement of the proof-of-citizenship requirement for new Kansas voters, which was approved by the Legislature two years ago. The new law, part of Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s Secure and Fair Elections – or SAFE – Act, requires that registrants provide documents proving their citizenship such as a birth certificate or passport.

The proof-of-citizenship requirement is separate from and requires a higher level of proof than the photo-identification requirements Kansas voters face at the polls. For example, a regular driver’s license or state ID card suffices for voter ID, but not for proof of citizenship.

The constitutionality of the Kansas law came into question when the Supreme Court ruled in June that a similar law in Arizona conflicted with the federal Motor Voter Act, passed by Congress in 1993 in an attempt to standardize requirements and make it easier to register across the country.

Kobach did not return a phone message seeking comment, but has previously argued that the proof-of-citizenship provision is needed to prevent fraudulent voting by noncitizen immigrants. He also has said he thinks his version of proof of citizenship differs enough from the Arizona law to pass a court challenge.

Opponents of the SAFE Act charge that it is little more than an effort by Kobach, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, to gain political advantage by making it harder for the poor, the young and the elderly to exercise their right to vote. Those voters tend to lean more Democratic, and poor people and seniors are less likely to have a passport or ready access to their birth records, opponents say.

Approximately 13,000 prospective voters have filed registration forms but have had their voting privileges suspended until they provide proof of citizenship.

The ACLU and several public-interest voting rights groups sent Kobach a letter Monday demanding that he bring Kansas registration in line with Supreme Court guidelines within three months and threatening litigation if he doesn’t.

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