Leaders representing about two dozen, faith, labor and civil rights groups from across Kansas met here today to organize efforts to battle early implementation of the state's voter identification law.
The organizations were reacting to efforts announced by Secretary of State Kris Kobach to begin enforcing a provision requiring proof of citizenship for voter registration next spring. The law, passed last March, currently doesn't go into effect until January 2013. Election officials have also voiced opposition to moving up the date.
But groups meeting over the lunch hour at Inter-Faith Ministries said Kobach's efforts to start the requirement in March could keep thousands of Kansas citizens from participating in the 2012 elections. People who don't have driver's licenses or changes in name or address may not have the documentation required by law to register to vote, they said.
"This is not a partisan issue," Marie Johnson of the NAACP in Salina told the group. "It makes it more difficult for people to participate in our democracy."
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Kobach said the objections are premature, because regulations currently being drafted will define how the law is implemented and will address many of their concerns. Regulations have been written and are being sent to the Kansas Department of Administration, then to the attorney general.
"That process should be finished by the end of the year," Kobach said. "We spent the summer working with election officials across the state in bipartisan groups to draft the regulations and find the best ways on how to put this law into effect."
Johnson and others said providing proof of citizenship would hamper voter registration efforts across the state.
Ernestine Krehbiel, president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said 1 million Kansas women who have married have changed or added names that are different from their birth certificates. She said people who have moved won't have valid addresses, and many people who are elderly and poor can't get to the motor vehicle registration office to obtain new identification.
Legislators passed the bill last spring at Kobach's urging. Kobach has argued the law is necessary to stop voter fraud.
Krehbiel said the consequences will hit legitimate voters.
"We need to call this what it is -- a voter suppression law," Krehbiel said. "They are not stopping fraud. They are suppressing the rights of voters."
Krehbiel said 11 percent of Kansans have no photo identification and a quarter of those are older Kansans.
Kevin Myles of the Wichita NAACP urged leaders to have residents contact their legislators and explain the ramifications of moving up the date and how it would affect voters who cast ballots for both parties in the 2012 elections.
"It is my experience that we are not fighting people who have thought out the ramifications of this law," Myles said. "They just believe what they are told."
Kobach said it's the groups protesting the law that don't understand it. He said the new regulations will allow married women to use their birth certificates and shouldn't hamper voter registration.
"This is a law to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat," Kobach said.
The new law would not affect those already registered to vote, and some said they will push for early voter registration drives surrounding the 2012 elections. United Teachers of Wichita, for example, has started registering students who will be of voting age next November at this month's parent-teacher conferences. The group reported registering over 100 in two weeks.
"Many young people don't know the hurdles to voting," said Suma Arias, executive director of Sunflower Community Action. "When they find out those hurdles, they may decide it's easier not to vote. You will have a generation who will not show up to vote."
Under the new law Kobach said people can register to vote at civic events, then upload their identification or proof of citizenship online.
"They can take a photocopy of their birth certificate and upload it, fax it or text it," Kobach said.
The groups are organizing their efforts under the banner KanVote. People can follow the efforts, ask questions and participate in conversations online through social networks on the organization's Facebook page and under the tag #kanvote on Twitter.
Kobach said the arguments and concerns aren't new, but rather the same heard when the legislature was considering the law earlier this year.
"They addressed the valid concerns in amendments to the law and, rightfully, rejected the others," Kobach said.
The public will also have a month to comment on the regulations, Kobach said, once they are published.