Kansas Democrats to introduce voting rights bill at special session in Topeka

On the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Kansas Democrats unveiled a bill they’ll introduce to force the issue of voting rights into next week’s special legislative session in Topeka.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau and Rep. Jim Ward, both Wichita Democrats, said they are going to force the Legislature to take action – one way or another – on changing new proof-of-citizenship requirements that have approximately 15,000 prospective Kansas voters waiting to find out if they’ll be able to cast a ballot.

The bill would essentially add a line to the existing voter-registration form allowing Kansans to prove their U.S. citizenship by swearing out an affidavit. At present, the law requires prospective voters to provide document proof, such as a birth certificate or passport.

The revised voter registration form would warn prospective voters that swearing a false statement of citizenship would be perjury and could lead to felony prosecution.

Both houses of the Legislature will convene in Topeka next week, primarily to work out a fix for the Hard 50, a criminal sentencing law that is nearly identical to a Virginia statute struck down in June by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ward and Faust-Goudeau contend that changing the voter-registration statute is as pressing a matter as fixing the Hard 50 law and for largely the same reason.

Within days of striking down Virginia’s sentencing law, the Supreme Court also struck down an Arizona statute that requires proof of citizenship to register to vote, as the Kansas law does.

The high court ruled that Arizona’s demand for documented proof conflicted with the federal “Motor Voter” law, which allows voters to register based on their sworn statement that they are eligible citizens.

The bill to change Kansas’ voting law was released by Democrats on the 50th anniversary of King’s speech, which was a pivot point in the civil rights struggle for African Americans. Faust-Goudeau said her mother attended King’s 1963 speech in Washington and considered registering her children to vote as one of the proudest moments of her life.

Faust-Goudeau acknowledged she’ll face an uphill battle in a conservative Republican-dominated Senate, but invoked a quote from King: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“I can’t just sit down and stay silent on the sidelines,” Faust-Goudeau said. “Voters need to know that I’m concerned about protecting the right to vote, for all people. Whether it passes or not, whether we even get our day in court, so to speak, I think it’s important to address the issue.”

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, has said that she won’t let a voter-registration bill come to the floor because it would open the door to other measures and could extend the special session well beyond the two to three days that legislative leaders are hoping to be in the Statehouse.

Wagle also said the issue could wait for the next regular session in January because there are no major elections between now and then.

The Legislature passed the proof-of-citizenship provision as part of a larger voter-ID law proposed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who says tighter identification requirements are needed to prevent voting fraud.

He could not be reached for comment Wednesday but has said he thinks his statute is different enough from Arizona’s to survive a court challenge.

Kobach also recently joined Arizona’s secretary of state in a lawsuit seeking to compel the federal government to revise federal voter registration forms to conform to the states’ proof-of-citizenship requirements.

Opponents of the proof-of-citizenship laws contend they are part of efforts by Republican political operatives to suppress the votes of Democratic-leaning blocs such as minorities, the poor and elderly, who are voting-eligible citizens but may not have immediate access to seldom-used documents such as birth certificates and passports.

Faust-Goudeau and Ward both said if they can’t get their proposal considered as a stand-alone bill, they’ll bring it in as a floor amendment to the Hard 50 bill when it comes through.

“We’re definitely doing this,” Ward said.