Politics & Government

Would-be voters are exasperated by Kansas’ new registration law

Lee Albee never thought signing up to vote would be so cumbersome.

Earlier this year, the Overland Park man registered to vote when he renewed his license at the motor vehicle office. It was supposed to be easy. It wasn’t.

Weeks later, the Johnson County election office notified Albee he needed to prove citizenship — with a birth certificate or a passport — if he wanted to register.

As it turned out, no one had asked him for those documents at the DMV office. Now he doesn’t have the time to follow up.

“They’re making it incredibly difficult,” Albee said. “It’s a pain in the tush.”

Albee is among 15,622 Kansans who had their voter registrations set aside until they can prove their citizenship under a new Kansas law that started this year. About 30 percent of those suspended registrations were in Johnson, Wyandotte and Leavenworth counties.

Most of the hiccups occur at the state’s motor vehicle offices, where drivers complain they aren’t being asked for citizenship documents when they register to vote. Almost nine in 10 of the voters who had their registrations suspended signed up to vote at the DMV.

The new law, which was pushed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, requires first-time voters to provide proof of citizenship when registering.

Anyone registered to vote on Jan. 1 of this year was grandfathered in and doesn’t have to prove citizenship.

Kobach argued the law was needed to prevent voter fraud and preserve the integrity of the state’s elections.

Critics say it’s designed to suppress voter registration. The say claims of voter fraud are overblown.

The American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to challenge the law, saying it’s essentially identical to an Arizona law that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled was unconstitutional.

“What this law has done has made it very difficult for ordinary citizens to get registered to vote even though they’re citizens,” said Doug Bonney, chief legal counsel for the ACLU of Kansas and Western Missouri.

Meanwhile, Kobach is fighting back, filing his own lawsuit aimed at bringing the Kansas law into compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision.

Kobach said the law was written to ensure that it wouldn’t hinder people from registering to vote.

“There’s nothing difficult at all,” he said, “about proving your citizenship if you are a U.S. citizen.”

Meanwhile, a pair of Wichita Democrats plan to introduce legislation that would allow voters to sign affidavits stating they’re citizens. If they lie, they could be charged with a felony. The bill is unlikely to gain traction this year.

Prospective voters interviewed by The Star — even those who had their registration suspended — generally believe the intent of the law is good.

“I think it’s absolutely understandable,” said Grace Nicholson, a 19-year-old Overland Park woman who registered to vote on the University of Kansas campus but didn’t provide the required documents because she wasn’t asked. “If you don’t live permanently in the country, I don’t think people should have the right to participate in voting.”

But even those who see the law’s good intent say it can bring headaches.

Voters who’ve had their registration held up said requiring proof of citizenship adds paperwork and eats up precious time, especially if someone isn’t asked for their documents when registering. At that point, many move on.

“I’m just not going to mess with this right now,” said Melodie Lockley of Shawnee.

Lockley, too, tried to register to vote when she transferred her license from Missouri to Kansas. She had all her paperwork because she didn’t want to return to the DMV.

“I had it with me,” Lockley said. “If they had asked me, I would have given it to them.”

A spokeswoman said DMV clerks only ask for proof of citizenship when someone registers to vote while applying for an original driver’s license, not when renewing one. She said most license renewal applicants don’t have citizenship documents, so drivers aren’t asked for them at the DMV.

Recent secretary of state statistics revealed that 87 percent of the suspended voter registrations came from state motor vehicle offices.

The motor vehicle offices are overseen by the Revenue Department within Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration.

“We are currently complying with state and federal law,” Revenue Department spokeswoman Jeannine Koranda said.

Election officials say they have tried to make it easy for voters to register despite the proof-of-citizenship law.

They have sent out repeated letters explaining how voters with suspended registrations can prove their citizenship. In Johnson County, automated calls alert the handful of voters who provided phone numbers that their registration has been held up.

Kobach says it can be as easy as taking a picture of your documents on a cellphone and texting it to the local election office. Copies of the documents can be mailed, faxed or emailed to the local election office as well.

“We drafted this law to bend over backward to make it easier for the registering voter,” Kobach said.

Don’t tell that to Rick Kuykendall of Olathe, who tried to register at the driver’s license office but was told weeks later that he needed to prove he was a citizen.

“If they’re asking for more proof, it’s just too much work for me to go and prove citizenship,” Kuykendall said. “So I am just not going to vote.”

Others see little impediment to getting registered.

Aimee Burman of Spring Hill recently moved to the area from Georgia. She tried to register to vote when she was enrolling her son in school. She was later notified she would need to send in proof of citizenship.

“I just made a copy of what they asked for and sent it in,” Burman said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with checking to make sure people that are registering are truly United States citizens.”

Local election officials say they are getting little response from their efforts to contact people who tried to register but didn’t provide proof of citizenship.

“They’re not that interested in the issue because they don’t see the immediacy of needing to vote,” said Johnson County Election Commissioner Brian Newby.

Indeed, the next presidential election is three years away. Neither the Kansas governor nor any of the 125 members of the state House are up for re-election until next year.

However, there are a handful of local elections this October, including sales tax elections in Overland Park and Bonner Springs and a bond issue for the Turner School District.

Even many would-be voters exasperated with the process say they will probably try to get their registration cleared up, although not anytime soon.

Jo Mitchell of De Soto tried to register after moving back to Johnson County earlier this year from Baltimore. She tried to register online and was surprised to find she needed proof of citizenship after living here before.

“I will wait until the last minute and hope the law will change,” she said. “I just don’t have time for it right now.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle