Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly characterized a Supreme Court decision on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. The court ruled Section 4 of the act is unconstitutional, which halted enforcement of Section 5 of the act, the section that required pre-clearance of voting law changes in states with a historic pattern of voting discrimination.
By Dion Lefler
The Wichita Eagle
Kansas laws could be targeted as the U.S. attorney general on Thursday announced a new federal offensive against state restrictions on voting rights.
Attorney General Eric Holder said Thursday that he is shifting resources in the Justice Department to pursue more legal action against state-by-state voting restrictions. He said his efforts will begin with Texas and expand to other states where voting issues have surfaced.
Joan Wagnon, chairwoman of the Kansas Democratic Party, applauded Holders speech and said shes considering contacting the Justice Department over the issue of more than 12,000 Kansas voters whose registration is in suspense because of state requirements that all new registrants provide proof of U.S. citizenship.
I think theres real good reason to take a look at whats going on here, Wagnon said. The fact that weve got those 12,000 people sitting out there that may not get to vote seems to me to be enough of an injustice to warrant somebody in the federal government taking a look at it.
State Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center and vice chairman of the House Elections Committee, said the number of voters in suspense is a problem, but its one the Legislature can and will deal with.
Holders got a political agenda thats got nothing to do with the issue, he said of the U.S. attorney general, a Democrat. Each party tries to do things they feel are best for their goal of getting their candidates elected.
Voting is a right, but its a right for citizens of the United States, he said, adding that people hes talked with and opinion polls show widespread support for proof of citizenship.
Values as a nation
Holder made his remarks on voting rights to a convention of the National Urban League in Philadelphia. His speech was later released by the Justice Department.
This has never been a partisan issue, Holder said. Its a question of our values as a nation. It goes to the heart of who we are as a people. And its incumbent upon congressional leaders from both parties to guarantee that every eligible American will always have equal access to the polls.
Holder has previously spoken against voter-ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements similar to those in Kansas law. Thursdays speech appears to send notice that hes opening more fronts against laws that he feels could suppress voting and discriminate against minorities.
The attorney general said that he will immediately seek to bring Texas back under a requirement that it pre-clear any voting law changes with his agency or a federal court.
Texas was one of 15 states mostly in the formerly Confederate South that were totally or partially covered by Section 5 of the federal Voting Rights Act. The act required jurisdictions with a historic pattern of voting-rights discrimination to get Justice Department or court approval before implementing changes to election laws.
Last month, the Supreme Court stopped enforcement of Section 5 in a case brought by Shelby County, Ala., although the ruling held open the option to seek pre-clearance in jurisdictions where ongoing discrimination can be proved and for Congress to revise the law.
This is the Departments first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last, Holder said. Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the courts ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the laws remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected.
In Kansas, the bulge in suspended registrations has come since implementation of the new proof-of-citizenship requirement in January, part of a law the Legislature passed at Secretary of State Kris Kobachs recommendation.
Kobach could not be reached for comment Thursday but has previously said he thinks the Kansas law will stand legal scrutiny, although the Supreme Court struck down a similar Arizona law last month.
The Arizona law differed because forms without proof of citizenship were rejected outright there by election officials. Kansas officials have been instructed to accept the form and register the voter, but suspend the registrants voting privileges until the required proof is supplied.
A state regulatory committee last week rejected a proposal by Kobach that would have given the suspended voters a provisional ballot, to be counted only if they provide proof of citizenship between the election and the final canvass of the vote. The issue will be revisited in another meeting of the committee in about a month, said Huebert, who serves on the panel.
Delores Furtado, president of the League of Women Voters in Kansas, said she is trying to determine whether the large number of suspended registrations is because people didnt turn in citizenship proof, or because they did and its not being transmitted from the drivers license offices to the voter registration offices.
Kobach and his allies in the Legislature proposed the voter ID laws out of a belief that they would prevent fraudulent voting. But Furtado said the bigger problem is that not enough people are voting.
Laws should be to enhance that possibility, rather than a direct effort to suppress voting, she said. And I think that the disguise of were trying to reduce fraudulent voting has little credibility with me because the numbers dont reflect that.
Huebert said he doesnt think proof-of-citizenship is suppressing the vote.
We do have a problem with voter turnout, but it doesnt have anything to do with voter ID, he said. Theres apathy in this country.
Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.