A special election set for Feb. 28 in Wichita will be the third test of a new state law requiring voters to show government-issued identification at the polls.
Wichita’s vote, which will decide the fate of an estimated $2.25 million subsidy to help fund a boutique hotel downtown, will be the state’s first held in a large city after the change takes effect Sunday.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said he and election officials will be on hand to determine whether the law will affect voter turnout. He also plans to collect information on the number of voters who fail to bring valid photo ID to polling stations.
“We’ll be looking very closely at the administration of the election ... to make things flow as quickly and easily as possible so the change in voter ID goes smoothly for voters and poll workers,” Kobach said. He plans a voter education campaign to start in mid-February, but said specific strategies to reach voters are still in the planning stages.
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The first test of the much-debated law takes place next month in Cimarron, a town of 2,200 about 175 miles west of Wichita. On Jan. 10, the town’s 1,577 registered voters will decide whether to impose a 1.25 percent sales tax to help finance a new pool and cover its operating costs.
Roeland Park, a Johnson County city, follows with a Feb. 14 election to fill a vacant city council seat.
“The idea is to learn as much as we can from Cimarron and Roeland Park and Wichita,” Kobach said, “and apply those lessons going forward in all 105 (Kansas) counties in August,” when primary elections for state legislative seats and county offices will be held.
At stake in the Wichita election is more than $2 million in subsidies for the planned Ambassador Hotel, a 117-room, $22.5 million hotel proposed for the former Union National Bank building at Douglas and Broadway. To fund the subsidy, the Wichita City Council had approved rebating the developers 75 percent of the occupancy tax to be paid by the hotel’s guests over 15 years.
The election was set for Feb. 28 earlier this month after petitioners, who want the public to decide whether the city should tap the bed tax to subsidize the downtown hotel, collected the signatures of 2,719 verified Wichita voters. Free-market group Americans for Prosperity led the petition drive.
Local Americans for Prosperity leaders and developers for the Ambassador Hotel were not available for comment Wednesday afternoon.
11% turnout typical
Kobach said Wichita’s special election should be a good litmus test for the way voter check-in will function in state and national elections in August and November, when voter turnout is expected to be higher.
Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman expects an 11 percent voter turnout Feb. 28 – typical for Wichita’s school and city elections, she said.
“It’s a good way to acclimate the poll workers and to work out any kinks that might arise by seeing the law put into effect in elections of limited size before we go statewide with it,” Kobach said.
Basehor, a Leavenworth county town with fewer than 4,000 registered voters, and Garden Plain will also hold elections on Feb. 28, according to election officials.
Colwich and Garden Plain will follow with city elections on April 3. The Derby school district plans a vote the same day to approve a $66.64 million bond project to build and furnish a new middle school and pay for improvements to existing buildings.
“We have several elections in rapid succession to try everything out on,” Lehman said.
Kobach, whose office drafted the law, pushed legislators earlier this year to enact the photo ID requirement to curb what he called voter fraud in the state. The new law also requires election officials to verify the signatures of advance voters on each mail-in ballot, he said.
Citizens appearing on the county’s permanent list of advance voters are an exception to voter-ID law: They have been grandfathered in with the changes and do not have to show photo ID to vote, Lehman said. The permanent list includes people with illnesses and disabilities, she said. Also exempt are people whose religious beliefs prohibit them from having their photograph taken, and overseas military voters and their spouses and dependents.
The law lists eight forms of photo ID that will be valid at the polls: a driver’s license, a state identification card, a United States passport, a public assistance card, a concealed-carry permit, and military, government employee, and university student IDs.
Wichita residents who arrive without approved identification may cast provisional ballots on Feb. 28, but must provide valid ID to the election office by March 5 for their vote to count, Lehman said.
Law’s effect on turnout
Kobach and Lehman said they do not expect to see a drop in voter turnout because of the additional check-in requirement.
“For years, people when they come to the polls have asked why they don’t have to show ID,” Lehman said. “So I think that people who intend to vote will not be deterred by that at all.”
But Ernestine Krehbiel fears the voter-ID law will keep elderly, poor and minority Kansans – those who have “the hardest time getting proper identification,” she said – from casting ballots in any election, including the bed tax vote.
Krehbiel, president of the nonpartisan, nonprofit League of Women Voters of Kansas, said the documentation is hard to acquire for some voters, especially elderly Wichitans who can’t stand in long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles, waiting for IDs to be issued.
“Think of the complication,” Krehbiel said. “People will say ‘To vote about a hotel? Aw, that’s too much effort.’”
“It’s not only a bad law, but it’s poorly implemented ... and not thought through.”
Krehbiel also said Kobach’s plan to remind Wichitans to bring their identification to the polls doesn’t go far enough to reach at-risk voters.
Lehman said she has taken steps to ensure Wichita voters have appropriate identification available on election day. Her office has already verified that 98 percent of Sedgwick County’s active, registered voters have valid driver’s licenses – leaving just a few who may have trouble on election day, she said.
Citizens without a valid, government-issued photo ID may request a free non-driver’s identification card by filling out a form available at the Sedgwick County Commission office or at www.sedgwickcounty.org/elections. The forms will be available online after the first of the year, Lehman said.
“I think by doing the preparatory work, we were able to see, okay here’s our numbers, and we’re going to be fine,” Lehman said.
“So we don’t anticipate there being a problem with many people being able to produce them at the polls.”
Contributing: Associated Press, Dion Lefler of The Eagle