Politics & Government

Few affected by court rulings voted in Kansas primary

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Few of the 17,600 Kansas voters at the center of legal fights over the state’s proof of citizenship requirements actually cast ballots in the Aug. 2 primary.

Voting rights advocates won temporary court rulings in federal and state courts affirming the right to vote for people who registered at motor vehicle offices but never submitted citizenship documents.

Overall, statewide turnout was 23.1 percent, with 403,532 votes cast. The unofficial count for the primary shows 9,032 provisional ballots were cast; provisional ballots are typically given out when there is a question about voter eligibility, such as someone who voted in the wrong precinct.

And the Associated Press surveyed the state’s five biggest counties – Johnson, Sedgwick, Shawnee, Wyandotte and Douglas – that together accounted for 4,287 of those provisional ballots. The AP found just 37 voters in those counties who cast ballots because of the court decisions.

But the Kansas Secretary of State’s office notes there won’t be a statewide number for how many of those were cast by voters affected by the rulings for another week or more because counties had until Thursday to canvass their provisional votes.

Kansas is embroiled in at least four lawsuits over a state law pushed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, requiring people to provide documentary proof of U.S. citizenship – such as a birth certificate, passport or naturalization papers – to register to vote.

Federal law requires states to allow people to register at motor vehicle offices when they’re obtaining or renewing driver’s licenses. Ahead of the primary, about 17,600 people registered at motor vehicle offices without providing citizenship papers. About 50,000 people could be affected in November.

In May, U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson said people who register at motor vehicle offices are entitled to vote in federal races even if they’ve not met the proof-of-citizenship requirement.

And four days before the primary election, a Kansas judge temporarily blocked the state from throwing out such votes for state and local races. His order will remain in effect through at least Sept. 21, and he may decide whether to extend it to the November election.

The judge, Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks, said of protecting people’s right to vote: “There is no right that is more precious in a free country.”

“That individual court decision was an extraordinary statement of principles of democracy and values of democracy,” said Marge Ahrens, co-president of the League of Women Voters in Kansas. “And even if it didn’t make thousands of people run to vote, it was a reiteration of what we stand for – that frankly was heard all over the country.”

Shawnee County Election Commissioner Andrew Howell said his office has spent a lot of time and effort helping complete applications from people who registered without proof of citizenship. He said some have moved out of state and a few are “simply not interested in elections and voting at all.” Just three voters covered by the court decisions voted in the county.

To the southwest, Sedgwick County had 15 voters affected by the court decisions who voted.

Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said in an email that the federal court ruling caused “a couple hundred” extra work hours and required printing extra ballots and lists, but those costs were minimal.

“Quite honestly, it was more the unknown and trying to quickly change directions with 500-plus election workers that caused more worry and lack of sleep for me than actual work,” she said.