If Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach could claim a minor triumph in federal court Friday, there is nothing to celebrate about Kobach’s law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote and the absurd roadblock it’s creating for thousands of would-be voters in Kansas.
Rather than accept the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last summer invalidating Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship requirement as also applying to Kansas, Kobach has continued to press the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to alter the federal voter-registration form to reflect both states’ requirements that those registering to vote provide a birth certificate, passport or other proof of U.S. citizenship. The current federal form requires only that applicants sign a statement, under penalty of perjury, swearing they are citizens.
U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren stopped short Friday of giving Kobach what he wanted – a preliminary injunction to force the commission to modify the federal form to acknowledge the states’ restrictions. But the judge ordered the commission to act by Jan. 17, adding that the matter had been unreasonably delayed and now risked interfering with 2014 elections.
Getting any decision out of the commission may be difficult. Created by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, the four-member panel hasn’t had a quorum since 2010 and has had no members since 2011, though two nominations are pending. The judge said that if the commission doesn’t act by Jan. 17, the state requests will be deemed denied.
Kobach told the court that there were 20 cases in Kansas of people who signed an oath of citizenship who weren’t citizens. Yet he seems indifferent to the more than 17,000 cases of Kansans disenfranchised by the proof-of-citizenship law – people who could have voted without difficulty had they registered before Jan. 1, 2013, who will be denied the right to vote and be treated like second-class citizens until they provide state-approved paperwork. The law also is hampering the ability of the League of Women Voters and other groups to hold voter-registration drives at community events, schools and the like – part of the proud tradition of encouraging voting in Kansas.
And if the commission doesn’t rule Kobach’s way, he plans to make matters far worse by implementing a two-tier registration system in which those who haven’t proved citizenship can only vote in races for Congress and president. That sounds costly, confusing and unworkable for local election officials. It’s also offensive: If you register to vote in Kansas, you should be able to vote in Kansas, up and down the ballot.
Kansas needn’t be at the mercy of either the Election Assistance Commission or the court.
Gov. Sam Brownback, Attorney General Derek Schmidt and the GOP-led Legislature can show leadership on behalf of the rights of all eligible voters and push for a repeal of the proof-of-citizenship requirement in the session that starts Jan. 13. If not, they effectively will continue to endorse Kobach’s agenda and the resulting disenfranchisement of voters.