Politics & Government

Kansas lawmakers have voter law in their sights

The Wichita Eagle

When the Kansas Legislature convenes its 2014 session on Monday, two Wichita Democrats plan to come out of the gate swinging against the state’s proof-of-citizenship requirements for new voters.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau and Rep. Jim Ward will introduce legislation on the first day to undo the state’s proof-of-citizenship requirements for voter registration.

The requirement that new registrants provide a birth certificate or other documents to prove citizenship has left nearly 20,000 people in suspended registration status.

Some Republicans say the law should be refined rather than repealed to prevent against unnecessary suspensions but still protect elections from voter fraud.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, defends the statute in its current form and accuses its Democratic critics of misrepresenting the law’s intent.

Faust-Goudeau and Ward will introduce bills that also were proposed in last fall’s special session. They would match Kansas with federal requirements by including an affidavit swearing U.S. citizenship on voter registration forms but lift demands that registrants provide passports or birth certificates.

“There isn’t a sane person that believes that there are 20,000 cases of voter fraud (in Kansas),” Ward said in a phone call Friday.

Ward said the statute primarily affects women, naturalized immigrants, the poor and the elderly – groups that tend to be Democratic politically. With an election in the fall, the Legislature should not wait to address the problem, she said.

Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, called suspensions of new registrants a concern but opposes repeal of the law.

“To repeal a proof of citizenship would be the wrong direction to go,” she said. “I mean, you really want a requirement that you be a U.S. citizen to be respected.” She said it was unfortunate that some potential voters lacked birth certificates.

Sen. Michael O’Donnell, R-Wichita, said the proof-of-citizenship statute has “some major flaws” and that the Legislature should fix technicalities to ensure it doesn’t keep out rightful voters.

Rep. Brett Hildabrand, R-Lenexa, said that although he would support a legislative fix if necessary, he’d prefer to let the secretary of state’s office have autonomy on the matter.

“I would want any proposed fix to originate with the Secretary of State’s office as that is their function,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I am hopeful they can make a recommended fix without additional legislation.”

Kobach firmly opposes making any changes to the statute. In a phone call, he said his office is working to make the process as easy as possible, comparing registration applications against records from the Office of Vital Statistics for native-born Kansans.

Americans who move to Kansas from other states and want to register still must use a passport or obtain a birth certificate from their home states. Kobach notes that as a Wisconsin native, he would fall into this category.

He also said the law allows immigrants who gain citizenship to use their federal naturalization number to register.

Still, some new citizens have found registering difficult. At a public forum at the Sedgwick County Courthouse last week, Betty Ladwig with the Wichita chapter of the League of Women Voters said some newly naturalized citizens trying to register have been left in suspended status because of clerical errors.

“The league for years has registered these people as they come out of the room where the federal judge swears them in as citizens. And we are very, very disturbed about this,” Ladwig said in a plea to the South-Central Kansas Legislative Delegation.

Kobach rejects the claim that anyone has been turned away from voting, calling it a misrepresentation from opponents of the law.

“These are just incomplete applications,” he said. “Nobody is being denied the opportunity to finish their form.”

He said his office has “bent over backwards” to make the process as easy as possible, noting that in some districts, voters can e-mail a PDF of a birth certificate.

“It’s a stretch to say it’s difficult when you can do it from your couch at home,” Kobach said.

But to e-mail a PDF, you would first need a copy of the document, Ward points out.

“The first step in solving a problem is the recognition that there is a problem,” Ward said. He criticized the statute as making different tiers of citizenship within the state of Kansas and said that by making voters provide evidence of citizenship, the state is assuming that new voters are guilty until proven innocent.

“We should suspend the law and register the voters until the law is straightened out,” he later added.

Ward said a signature on an affidavit should be enough proof for the state, saying a signature on legal documents is the standard of proof in other areas of life. His bill would make signing a fraudulent signature on one of these forms a felony.

In her speech to the delegation, Ladwig echoed this sentiment. Holding up a voter registration card, she told legislators, “This is a voter registration card. This is all that should be needed.”

“This is an affidavit of truth,” she said to applause.

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