TOPEKA — A candidate's push to ensure that only U.S. citizens vote in Kansas is adding some conflict and attention to the campaign for secretary of state, usually an unnoticed race.
Candidate Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who helped author Arizona's new immigration law, says "the problem with voter fraud is a growing one in Kansas and one that requires a law enforcement approach to solve.
"Previous secretaries of state have not taken steps to solve the issue," said Kobach, a former chairman of the state Republican Party.
Current Secretary of State Chris Biggs, a Democrat, and his immediate predecessor, Republican Ron Thornburgh, have said voter fraud is so rare that it is not a significant threat to the integrity of elections.
Biggs, who is seeking his party's nomination in the Aug. 3 Democratic primary, said "voter fraud is not a major problem in this state and it certainly does not have a connection to illegal immigration in the way it is being portrayed" by Kobach.
Kobach replies that no one is seriously investigating potential voting fraud, so there is no way of knowing how many instances exist.
He said one thing that makes him suspect illegal voting is that activists have been observed registering workers at western Kansas meatpacking plants. He said the industry has been known to employ illegal immigrants.
Every election generates complaints, but there are few actual voting-fraud cases on file.
"As of June 2009, our records indicate a total of seven cases that had been referred to local, state, or federal authorities in the past five years," said secretary of state spokeswoman Abbie Hodgson. "Of those seven cases, only one was prosecuted."
In February 2008, the state's Legislative Research Department compiled a list of dozens of complaints filed by the public over about the last decade.
The list includes assertions of parents voting on absentee ballots for their children, elderly nursing-home patients voting when they had dementia, spouses casting absentee ballots for spouses, and people voting in multiple counties in the same election.
The one case prosecuted involved three people who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges that they voted in Kansas and Missouri in the 2004 election.
In some other cases, ballots were rejected but no charges were filed.
Kobach has said he would help prosecute voter fraud cases. He also wants requirements that voters show state-issued photo identification to cast a ballot and show proof of citizenship to register to vote.
Comparing the voter registry to the Department of Homeland Security's list of immigrants would help determine if foreign nationals were illegally registering to vote, he said.
Wichita State University political science professor Ken Ciboski, a Republican, said Kobach has "created an issue here."
"I'm not so sure it is an issue, but he wants it to be an issue and he wants people to think there is a big issue," Ciboski said.
Other GOP views
Some of the other candidates also say voters should show state-issued photo ID, but they stop there.
Shawnee County Election Commissioner Elizabeth Ensley, a Republican candidate for secretary of state, said she has helped provide evidence in a dozen election law cases during her time in office, since 1992.
She does not view voter fraud as widespread as Kobach indicates but says election officials have to remain vigilant.
"Election officials always have to take every accusation seriously, they need to look into it and they need to protect voting. Because there will be somebody who tries to take advantage of the situation if we don't," she said.
Ensley supports the idea of voters showing photo identification to cast a ballot, but she acknowledges accommodations will need to be worked out for some voters.
"Because you cannot wheel a hospital bed into the motor vehicle department, for our older citizens, senior citizens and disabled we will need to work out something for them ..." she said.
Ensley is not pushing for proof of citizenship to register to vote.
Republican primary candidate J.R. Claeys said he hadn't seen proof of widespread voter fraud in Kansas.
"Saying things like it is pervasive or something that is happening in every election or every county, I can't say that," he said. "I can say that I think that things are happening, but I'm not going to say there is a whole bunch of fraud when I don't have proof of it."
Claeys, who has worked as an international election observer, said he would help implement a voter identification law if it passed. He said he doesn't want to create long lines or prevent eligible citizens from voting.
He supports voter identification as a way to help move the election process along more quickly.
Current law allows for a wide range of documents, including utility bills, to be used to establish eligibility to vote.
A uniform identification would make the process easier for poll workers, he said.
The Democratic side
In the Democratic race between Biggs and state Sen. Chris Steineger, voter fraud and voter identification have been much less of a focus.
Steineger said he would not push for voter identification but would support any law that was passed.
"I predict that within 10 years Americans will be required to use a voter ID to vote. It's not something I like but it is something I think will happen," he said.
He voted for a voter identification bill introduced in the 2007 legislative session. The bill passed the Senate, and an amended version appears to have passed the House, but the measure never became law.
Steineger said he did not remember the exact reason he voted for that bill.
Biggs said the system already has procedures in place to catch people who should not be registered to vote.
The state compares the voter registration rolls to the Department of Motor Vehicles' lists to see if people listed as noncitizens on the driver's license lists are on the voter rolls, he said.
"Some people participate in the registration process that are not citizens and we have a way of checking that," he said. "To our knowledge we had one person vote in that check and balance that should not have."
That case took place in March 2009 in Sedgwick County. The case was referred to the Sedgwick County District Attorney's Office, where it is still under investigation. No charges have been filed, but that doesn't mean something couldn't be filed in the future, said spokeswoman Georgia Cole.
No other information about the case was available.