Politics & Government

Young voters, Wichitans top Kansas’ suspended voter list

A statewide list of 36,674 suspended voters – those who tried to register to vote but did not meet all the requirements – will start to disappear this week.

A new rule proposed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach will remove people who have been on the list for more than 90 days if they haven’t shown proof of citizenship. Before, they would have stayed on the list until they resolved their registration problem.

The majority of those people?

Young, unaffiliated voters.

An Eagle analysis shows that more than 40 percent of people on the state’s suspended voter list are under 30.

More than half are unaffiliated with a party, while 18 percent are listed as Democrats and 22 percent are listed as Republicans.

Since a proof of citizenship law championed by Kobach went into effect in 2013, more than 16 percent of people who have tried to register to vote have been placed on the suspended voter list.

The list had grown to 36,674 people by this month – up from 27,131 in October last year.

The vast majority of people on the list in Sedgwick County – 92 percent – are there because they have not provided proof of citizenship documents, said Tabitha Lehman, Sedgwick County elections commissioner.

Kobach does not call people on the list suspended voters. Rather, he said, their registration status is incomplete.

“‘Suspended’ implies that they were once voters,” Kobach said. “‘Your driving rights have been suspended’ implies that you once had them. … It’s an uncompleted registration record that a person has started, but no one’s voting rights have ever been suspended because of the proof of citizenship law.”

Multiple obstacles

A number of obstacles stand in the way of young people voting, said Russell Fox, political science professor at Friends University.

Frequent changes of address, getting married, getting divorced and having unusual job hours can all hinder the registration process, especially when additional paperwork needs to be filed, he said.

While those obstacles might not seem particularly difficult for more-established adults, the mobility of young people and voter registration laws can collide, he said.

“This is a real tragedy because you want to involve people in the process, you want them to see their citizenship as an opportunity that is waiting for them to be acted on as citizens. But instead, we make it hard. That increases the disaffection and then government and politics turns off people, so they continue to not register or be involved,” he said.

Daisy Alvidrez, 20, tried to register last month as an unaffiliated voter, but was told she needed to provide additional information.

“I just wanted to try to vote,” she said. “I just had a newborn and I have a 2-year-old and I haven’t had a chance to get around to it.”

Kobach said his staff had not analyzed the ages of voters on the list, but he also pointed to mobility as a possible reason.

"It stands to reason that a lot of the most mobile people who are switching addresses a lot are young people, so they would need to start a new record anyway,” he said.

The proof of citizenship policy was not intended to affect one group of people more than any other, Kobach said. He added that the high number of young voters with an incomplete status was not a cause for concern – they can complete their registration by “either texting or e-mailing a photograph of their birth certificate that they take with their smartphone.”

Political influence

Some political scientists say the proof of citizenship laws could help keep the status quo of a Republican majority in Kansas politics.

The 90-day rule “is going to tend toward preserving the electorate we have now and making it more difficult to expand it,” said Michael Smith, professor of political science at Emporia State University.

“Younger people are trending more toward independent or Democratic even in Kansas,” he said. “A lot of would-be newer voters are probably less Republican.”

Caleb Sattler, 20, tried to register to vote as unaffiliated when he updated the address on his driver’s license a couple of months ago.

“I did it online but then didn’t mail something in,” he said.

He’s never voted before and said he’s not in a rush to finish registering since there’s not a major election coming up.

“Eventually, I’ll get it done,” he said.

Wichitan Justin Alexander, 22, tried to register two years ago but never finished the paperwork. The process to register was more burdensome than he expected.

“I’ve thought about it a little here and there with the new presidency, but I haven’t really put much thought into which side I’m on,” he said. “I wouldn’t really affiliate with either side right now.”

Demographic trends

Smith, the Emporia State professor, said purging the list after 90 days will make it more difficult to study the impact of the proof of citizenship policy – including the demographics of people on the list.

Kobach said it would still be possible to analyze the list by requesting the data every three months rather than all at once.

Smith analyzed the suspended voter list from fall 2014 and found that five of the 10 census tracts with the highest percentage of suspended voters were in Wichita. Another was in Topeka.

Wichita has the highest number of suspended voters in the state – 6,759 – about two and a half times more than the next city of Overland Park and more than three times the number in Topeka.

Smith also found that the districts had higher minority populations and poverty rates than the state average.

“Of course that’s going to reduce the political clout of the urban areas if they can’t pull their voters out in these statewide elections,” he said.

One last chance

Statewide, the suspended voter list is larger than the margin of votes between Republican Gov. Sam Brownback and Democrat Paul Davis in last fall’s election. Brownback beat Davis by less than 33,000 votes.

The number of people on the suspended list is “embarrassing and so Kobach wants to wipe it away,” said Doug Bonney, chief counsel of the ACLU of Kansas, which is challenging the legality of the proof of citizenship requirement in court.

Kobach said that claim is ridiculous and that the policy is meant to save counties money. He said Georgia and Arizona have deadlines shorter than 90 days for their proof of citizenship laws.

Lehman said the Sedgwick County Election Office has spent about $20,000 on registration reminders to suspended voters since January 2013.

She said the office is ramping up to send out a notice again with the new rule change, to give those on the suspended voter list “one last chance.”

Reach Kelsey Ryan at 316-269-6752 or kryan@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @kelsey_ryan.

Suspended voters

Party affiliation

▪ Blank: 457

▪ Libertarian: 575

▪ Democrat: 6,522

▪ Republican: 8,323

▪ Unaffiliated: 20,797

Top five counties

▪ 1. Sedgwick: 8,271

▪ 2. Johnson: 7,910

▪ 3. Shawnee: 2,183

▪ 4. Wyandotte: 1,796

▪ 5. Douglas: 1,435

Top 10 cities

▪ 1. Wichita: 6,759

▪ 2. Overland Park: 2,673

▪ 3. Topeka: 2,055

▪ 4. Olathe: 1,667

▪ 5. Kansas City: 1,641

▪ 6. Lawrence: 1,242

▪ 7. Shawnee: 913

▪ 8. Lenexa: 680

▪ 9. Manhattan: 657

▪ 10. Hutchinson: 651

Data: Analysis of database provided by the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office

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