A proof-of-citizenship requirement for Kansas voters is likely to come under attack once the Legislature opens its annual session, but the debate over the policy championed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach also will play in out in federal court and his re-election campaign.
The law took effect at the start of the year and requires new voters to produce a birth certificate, passport or other documentation of their U.S. citizenship when registering. As the year ends, more than 19,000 Kansas residents find their registrations on hold — keeping them from legally casting ballots — because they haven't complied.
Several Democratic lawmakers have proposed rewriting or repealing the proof-of-citizenship law, and even some of Kobach's fellow Republicans in the GOP-dominated Legislature want to look for ways to shrink the list of affected voters. Former state Sen. Jean Schodorf, the expected Democratic challenger for Kobach, is calling on legislators to audit how Kobach's office has administered the law once they convene Jan. 13.
Kobach and Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett filed a federal lawsuit earlier this year to compel a federal agency to help their states carry out proof-of-citizenship requirements. The American Civil Liberties Union launched its own legal challenge over the policy in November.
"He promised that this law would be simple, easy and seamless to implement," Schodorf, who voted for the law as a moderate Republican state senator, said during a recent interview. She lost her seat in 2012 conservative primary challenger and switched parties. "We're in this horrible mess."
If Kobach and Bennett are successful, the federal government will be forced to modify its national registration form and Kansas and Arizona residents will be informed they must present proof of their U.S. citizenship to be allowed to vote. Currently, people who use the national form only have to sign a statement attesting to their citizenship.
Kobach and Bennett contend their states face creating cumbersome dual registration systems in which they must accept the national form but limit those people to voting only in presidential, U.S. Senate and congressional races.
The separate ACLU lawsuit contends Kobach has no authority to create a dual registration system in Kansas.
"There's nothing the Legislature needs to do in regard to the proof-of-citizenship law, and I won't be asking them to do anything," Kobach said. "At this point, it's down to my legal staff to defend these laws in court."
Kobach said many of the prospective voters are waiting to provide proof of citizenship until the August primary or November general election because, "It's human nature for a lot of people to put things off."
Kobach promoted the law as an anti-fraud measure preventing non-citizens from voting, particularly those living in the U.S. illegally. During a December federal court hearing, he said his office had found the names of 20 noncitizens out of the about 1.7 million registered on the state's voter rolls.
"We know that the law is having its intended effect," he said.
Critics of the proof-of-citizenship law contend it creates a new burden for prospective voters, far out of proportion to the problem it's purporting to solve. State Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat who serves on the chamber's elections committee, said the policy should be repealed, calling it an attempt to "repress voter participation."
House Elections Committee Chairman Scott Schwab, a conservative Olathe Republican, said the proof-of-citizenship rule still has broad public support.
"It wasn't a mistake, and it was what people wanted," Schwab said. "The problem was the administration of the law."
Schwab places part of the blame on the state Department of Revenue, which earlier this year announced it had dropped plans to require anyone renewing a driver's license to present citizenship documents — which then could be forwarded to election officials.
Secretary Nick Jordan has said the department was responding to concerns about the potential inconvenience for motorists and to cues from federal officials that such a step wouldn't be required under a federal anti-terrorism law.
Schwab said legislators may consider proposals to require the Department of Revenue to go back to its original plans. Schodorf said those initial plans had reassured lawmakers like her that the proof-of-citizenship law could be administered smoothly.
She said that if lawmakers don't address the problems, she'll appeal to voters.
Kobach also expects to debate the policy for months ahead of the November election.
"It is probably going to serve as a referendum," Kobach said.