12,000 Kansas voters still in limbo over proof of citizenship

A poll worker at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church examines a voter's driver's license. (February 28, 2012)
A poll worker at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church examines a voter's driver's license. (February 28, 2012) The Wichita Eagle

About 12,000 people across Kansas tried to register to vote this year but remain in limbo because they haven’t yet proven to the state that they are American citizens.

And in limbo they will remain. That’s because a panel of state lawmakers declined Tuesday to act on Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s proposal to let partially registered voters cast provisional ballots in forthcoming elections and then prove their citizenship before a canvass of the vote a week or so later.

A 2011 law pushed by Kobach requires people registering to vote for the first time to prove they are American citizens by showing a birth certificate, state-issued ID, passport or other document.

Since the law went into effect Jan. 1, the voter registration forms of 12,029 people remain “in suspense” because they have not proven citizenship. Kobach and other state officials say they think most of those people tried to register while renewing their driver’s licenses, which doesn’t require proof of citizenship.

Kobach said his proposal would have given voters, particularly those who could participate in upcoming special elections this fall, an extra week to prove their citizenship. But he said those who remain in suspense probably only registered after being asked by clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles and aren’t likely to be very active voters.

“I don’t think it’s a major problem,” he said. “This is a pretty tiny percentage of 1.8 million voters. It’s a small number of people. We’ll see as the coming elections unfold how many actually come out to vote.”

DMV offices forward the registrations to county election officials. If they aren’t accompanied by proof of citizenship, the registrations sit the documents show up. County election officials are supposed to mail reminders to those people.

Those in that situation are not listed as voters on voter rolls that election workers check before ushering voters to the ballot box. People who aren’t sure if their registration is complete can check with election officials, and they can provide proof of citizenship to finish their registration and be listed on voter rolls.

In Sedgwick County, about 2,400 people are in suspense, Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said. Lehman said her office is getting the information from the DMV, but many people who are renewing licenses don’t bring proof of citizenship with them.

Sedgwick County election officials then send partially-registered voters a notice that they need to show proof of citizenship by e-mail, fax, mail or in person to complete their registration. Those who don’t respond get a second notice and a phone call, she said.

“We’re reaching out to them multiple times,” Lehman said.

Voters then have until midnight the day before an election to submit proof of citizenship. Those who don’t and vote anyway have to cast provisional ballots that are then not counted because they aren’t fully registered.

Sen. Vicki Schmidt, R-Topeka, said the citizenship issue and proposed solutions could emerge again in a few months, with public comments collected prior to a vote on a permanent rule for those whose registrations are in suspense.

“In 2011, the Legislature was told that this would be a very seamless process and that voter registration wouldn’t be a problem because people would have provided that information to the DMV and they would automatically transfer that,” she said. “But that doesn’t appear to be happening now.”

She said public comment could help lawmakers find a new solution.

“The bottom line is we have 12,000 people out there that may or may not think they are registered to vote,” she said.

Schmidt said the problem isn’t widely known.

“We don’t really publicize this too much,” she said.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law requiring proof of citizenship. But Kobach has said that the Kansas Secure and Fair Elections Act differs enough from the Arizona law that the court’s ruling won’t affect Kansas.

Meanwhile, two elderly men who live in an assisted-living facility southeast of Topeka have filed a lawsuit against Kobach, saying that part of Kobach’s SAFE Act, which requires photo IDs at the polls, violates the Kansas Bill of Rights and prevented their 2012 ballots from being counted.

The men, Arthur Spry and Charles Hamner, said they didn’t have access to their birth certificates or other qualifying IDs, had to vote using provisional ballots and couldn’t get their votes counted because they didn’t produce qualifying identification by the time election officials canvassed the vote.

Kobach said he plans to respond to the lawsuit as early as Wednesday with a court filing that addresses “jurisdictional issues” involved in the case.

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