With Aug. 5 primary elections less than two months away, more than 18,000 potential voters find themselves with an incomplete registration status because their applications have not met the state’s proof of citizenship law.
The issue is at the center of the race for secretary of state – the state’s top election officer. Scott Morgan, a Republican challenger, and Jean Schodorf, the Democratic candidate, both accuse incumbent Kris Kobach of disenfranchising voters.
Kobach argues that the controversy has been overblown and says voters can fix their incomplete status. He also argues that the law helps prevent election fraud.
The secretary of state’s office tracks the totals at the start of every month. As of June 1 there were 18,071 incomplete voter registrations, according to spokeswoman V. Kay Curtis.
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“That’s actually a pretty small percentage of the people who have registered since January 1 (2013),” Kobach said in an interview earlier this month.
The total number of voters to successfully register between Jan. 1, 2013, when the new law went into effect, and May 31, 2014, is 79,387, according to Curtis. And the total number of voters across the state with a “complete” registration status was 1,728,386 as of June 1.
That means the number of registrants to be labeled incomplete since the law took effect is about 18.5 percent as of June 1 – though some may be for reasons other than proof of citizenship.
“It has pretty consistently been between 10 and 20 percent…that’s kind of where it’s been hanging ever since we started assisting some of the voters who were born in Kansas by confirming their birth certificate in Kansas,” Kobach said.
Sulma Arias, executive director of Kansas People’s Action in Wichita, said the percentage is big enough to sway a close election.
But Kobach has argued that the registration process is easier than critics have portrayed. He said most voters moving from out of state can register easily at the DMV when they get a new driver’s license, since a passport or birth certificate is required to obtain a license.
Kobach said that a problem during the early months of implementation – some DMV offices failed to accept the documents needed to prove citizenship to vote if they weren’t needed to renew a license – has been corrected.
He also says the law is written loosely enough so people registered by a voter drive, who don’t have their documents on hand, can send in their documents later to complete their registration.
“You could just take your smartphone and then take a picture of your passport or your birth certificate and then just e-mail it into the county election office,” Kobach said. “We’ve really bent over backwards to make it easy to comply with this. So you can do it from your couch at home, and you can wait as long as you want.”
Michael Nucci, a voter who was placed in incomplete status, said he found the process difficult.
Nucci, 43, moved to Wichita from Florida in 2012 and registered to vote without any problems. But in December 2013, when Nucci moved to a new address, he went to the DMV to update his registration and brought along his passport and phone bill. A week later, he said, he received a letter telling him his registration had been suspended.
Nucci contacted the Sedgwick County Election Office and was told to send a copy of his passport.
“There’s something involved between DMV and the election office where they are not on the same system. And I think it’s ridiculous,” Nucci said. “And I didn’t send them my passport because I already brought it to the DMV both times. Why should I send them a copy of my passport again, a third time?
“I’ve had no problem (registering to vote) until I came to Kansas,” Nucci said.
Democrat Jean Schodorf says the law has thrown up unfair hurdles to potential voters.
“There are people who we have found – and senior citizens are some of the most impacted – who will never be able to vote with the way the law is being implemented,” Schodorf said in a phone call this week. “They do not have some of the documentation. They just will never be able to vote, because they’ve lost their birth certificates.”
Schodorf voted for the proof of citizenship law as a member of the Senate in 2012. Schodorf, then a Republican, lost her seat when she was defeated in a primary by Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita.
Schodorf said she still supports the goal of preventing voter fraud but contends that Kobach, who championed the policy from the beginning, misrepresented how it would work in action.
“All of this, with the waiting lists and the two-tiered voting system, was never mentioned. It was not legislative intent,” Schodorf said. “And it really makes me mad because it’s hurting people.”
Schodorf says the law needs to change and announced that she plans to unveil a new voter plan on Tuesday. “Everything has to change. First of all, the secretary of state has to change. There has to be a secretary of state who wants to increase voters,” she said.
Her previous support of the policy could make it difficult for her to run on the issue, according to Chapman Rackaway, a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University. “It kind of makes it hard for her to be the champion on the other side there,” he said in a phone call.
Clay Barker, executive director of the Kansas Republican Party, said the measure passed in 2012 by a wide margin with support from members of both parties. He credited this to strong public support for making elections more secure.
Kobach faces a primary challenge from Scott Morgan, a Lawrence resident who works in publishing and previously worked for Sen. Bob Dole. Morgan is running a grassroots campaign – his press releases include his own cellphone number instead of a campaign manager’s contact.
Morgan opposes the proof of citizenship policy outright. “It is a solution crying out for a problem. For 150 years we’ve had good, clean elections in Kansas. There’s never been evidence of even one election in Kansas being changed by voter fraud,” Morgan said.
Between 1997 and 2009, there were a total of seven convictions for voter fraud, according to data the secretary of state’s office released during the initial push for proof of citizenship legislation.
“There wasn’t a problem. You’ve created a much bigger hurdle for people to register,” Morgan said.
“Mr. Morgan appears to be more liberal than Ms. Schodorf,” Kobach said.
Morgan dismissed the label. He said the secretary of state’s office is about efficiency rather than ideology. “I don’t know that it’s liberal or conservative to think you should be encouraging Kansans to vote,” he said.
Kobach said the issue is whether the proof of citizenship requirement, still facing an ongoing legal battle, remains intact.
“Either one of my opponents would likely surrender in court if they were elected … they would have the ability to just wave the white flag and give up,” he said. “And so it’s really important for voters to recognize if they want the proof of citizenship system to continue, they should prefer me to be secretary of state. If they want it to be discontinued, then they should absolutely vote for one of my opponents.”
Impact on Kobach
Rackaway said it’s unlikely that Morgan will upset Kobach in the Republican primary. Most Republicans support the policy, likely giving Kobach the advantage on the race’s key issue.
Morgan acknowledged that Kobach has a dedicated group of core supporters, but he also said that some conservative Republicans have grown weary of Kobach’s frequent activism in states other than Kansas. “They don’t know me, but they know I’m not him,” Morgan said. “It really won’t be about Morgan vs. Kobach as much as Kobach vs. Kobach.”
Looking ahead to the general election, Schodorf does have support of several grassroots organizations, including the recently formed Women For Kansas. The group’s website encourages visitors to donate to Schodorf’s campaign.
“Many voters have been burned out of the system,” said Lynn Stephan, a retiree in Wichita who serves as co-chair of the group. “His excuse has been voter fraud, which I know for a fact is incorrect. The six or seven fraud cases that have been tried in the last 20 years are insignificant compared to the 18,000 people who can’t vote.”
Democrats hope Schodorf, a moderate Republican who was ousted during the conservative takeover of the Senate in 2012, will be able to connect with voters from both parties. But Rackaway says the number of self-identified moderates has declined in recent election cycles.
“For this to really work for Schodorf, Kobach has to have angered enough base Republicans to get them to switch and he’s certainly not done that,” Rackaway said.
Rackaway said it was tough to predict the impact of the proof of citizenship law on the election, but that it will look bad for the state if the number of voters with an incomplete status doesn’t go down.
“From the ethics of it, when you look at this as an election, and this as a representation of democratic participation, if you have that many people in limbo, that’s a bad message to send,” he said.