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Kansas voting laws could face Justice Department scrutiny

Updated: 2013-07-26T20:46:00Z

By Dion Lefler

The Wichita Eagle

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.

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 Holder’s speech and said she’s 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 there’s real good reason to take a look at what’s going on here,” Wagnon said. “The fact that we’ve 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 it’s one the Legislature can and will deal with.

“Holder’s got a political agenda that’s 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 it’s a right for citizens of the United States,” he said, adding that people he’s 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. “It’s a question of our values as a nation. It goes to the heart of who we are as a people. And it’s 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. Thursday’s speech appears to send notice that he’s 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 Department’s 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 court’s ruling, we plan, in the meantime, to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to ensure that the voting rights of all American citizens are protected.”

Kansas’ law

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 Kobach’s 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 registrant’s 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 didn’t turn in citizenship proof, or because they did and it’s not being transmitted from the driver’s 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 ‘we’re trying to reduce fraudulent voting’ has little credibility with me because the numbers don’t reflect that.”

Huebert said he doesn’t think proof-of-citizenship is suppressing the vote.

“We do have a problem with voter turnout, but it doesn’t have anything to do with voter ID,” he said. “There’s apathy in this country.”

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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