Politics & Government

Kobach criticized over plan to purge some Kansas voter registration applications

The Kansas Black Leadership Council has approved its legislative agenda for the 2016 session. One of its top priorities is a bill that would allow Election Day voter registration as a way to boost turnout.
The Kansas Black Leadership Council has approved its legislative agenda for the 2016 session. One of its top priorities is a bill that would allow Election Day voter registration as a way to boost turnout. File photo

Voting advocates and others spoke out Wednesday against a rule proposed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to toss out incomplete voter registrations after 90 days.

The rule is unnecessary and would discourage many people from trying to participate in the voting process, they said. One speaker charged that the rule change was politically motivated.

But a county election commissioner said the 90-day limit made sense as a matter of efficiency.

Kobach didn’t attend the hearing, which was run by state elections director Bryan Caskey.

About 36,000 incomplete registrations are on file, and about 32,000 of those are missing proof-of-citizenship documents, Caskey said.

About 4,200 of the incomplete registrations were submitted within the past 90 days.

In 2011, the Kansas Legislature passed the Safe and Fair Elections Act, which included a photo ID requirement for voting and proof-of-citizenship rules for voter registration.

The proof-of-citizenship portion took effect in January 2013. It requires those registering to vote to provide such documents as a birth certificate or passport, which Kobach and others say is needed to ensure that only U.S. citizens vote.

Marge Ahrens, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said that producing proof-of-citizenship documents is a challenge to many, particularly older residents, because of the cost and time.

State and local officials don’t assist people in getting documents to complete their registrations, she said, and it would be a hardship if the applications were discarded.

“This requires them all to begin again,” she said.

Doug Bonney, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said 90 days isn’t enough time.

“There is no valid reason to limit this,” he said, except that the backlog of incomplete registrations is “huge and embarrassing” for Kobach.

Bonney also said it appears Kobach would exceed his authority if he implemented the rule. Asked after the hearing about possible ACLU legal action on that point, he said, “We’re looking into it.”

Kobach has said the rule change is within his administrative authority and has been cleared legally. He can implement it or consider changes after reviewing testimony from the hearing.

Michael Smith, an Emporia State University political scientist, presented data from a review of incomplete registrations that showed about 16 percent were completed over an eight-month period.

That’s about three times longer than the proposal would allow, he said.

Andrew Howell, Shawnee County election commissioner, defended the time limit as an efficient way to handle the incomplete applications. He said there were significant costs in repeatedly trying to contact applicants about the missing documents.

“A deadline makes it easier for us to do our job,” he said, noting that some people call back to ask that they not be contacted again about registering.

Several at the hearing said they spoke for the disadvantaged. The Rev. Ben Scott of the Topeka branch of the NAACP said Kansas’ election rules were a deterrent to voting for those with less means.

“If they’re denied for any reason, they will not go back again,” Scott said. “I don’t see anything in the regulation that talks about how to improve voter registration.”

Sonja Willms of the Capital City-Topeka National Organization for Women said the voting rules are a hindrance to the underprivileged, because many people lack transportation and the money needed to obtain and deliver the documents. They also are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican, she said.

“I do think there’s a political motive behind this,” Willms said. “I think it’s to block mostly Democrats from voting.”

Reached later, Kobach called the accusation of a partisan motive ridiculous, saying it assumes Democratic voters are less likely than others to complete their registrations. He also said it’s not a substantial burden for people to have to fill out another registration form.

“That takes a total of 30 seconds,” he said.

Georgia and Arizona also have proof-of-citizenship laws, and they have shorter time limits, he said.

The attorney general’s office and the Department of Administration have approved the rule, but Kobach is required by law to have a public hearing and consider possible changes. His office said it has received more than 400 written comments.

Kobach said he hopes the comments will be reviewed in a few weeks so that the rule can take effect Oct. 2.

Contributing: Associated Press

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