More than 30,000 incomplete voter registrations have piled up in Kansas — most waiting for applicants to submit the now-required “proof of citizenship” documents.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach says he knows how to fix the problem. He wants a new rule that allows election officials to toss out uncompleted applications after 90 days. The proposal will be the topic of a hearing this week.
Simple housekeeping, he says.
The wholesale dumping of potential voters, critics say, and for no good reason.
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Even Hillary Clinton weighed in last week. A tweet from her presidential campaign account called Kobach’s proposal a “purging” and a “targeted attack on voting rights.”
Kansas’ rules on voter ID and proof of citizenship championed by the Republican secretary of state have stirred up controversy nationally and close to home. Voting rights groups say the regulations muck up a system that wasn’t broken and, in the process, reduce voter participation.
Kobach, who considers himself a crusader for election integrity, says he’s battling voter fraud and ensuring that only U.S. citizens cast ballots in Kansas.
Critics are blowing issues way out of proportion, he says. In an interview with The Star, Kobach discussed the 90-day idea and other upcoming voting issues causing distress statewide.
First, Kobach said, his proposal is in no way a “purge” of voters because the applicants aren’t yet on the rolls of registered voters.
Counties are keeping incomplete applications indefinitely, Kobach said, and they’re sending out reminders to applicants, many of whom have moved. That’s costly, he said.
“All of our counties are tightening budgets and trying to not raise taxes,” he said. “In retrospect, it probably would have made sense to include that (a deadline provision) in the beginning.”
Georgia and Arizona also have proof-of-citizenship laws, and they limit the time applications are kept at either 30 days or 45 days, he said.
“We recognized that as a wise practice, but we’re being more generous,” Kobach said.
He said applicants can easily complete the registration process, including by fax and electronically. If an incomplete application times out, it’s not a problem to start over, he said.
But the League of Women Voters of Kansas has objections, to put it mildly.
“From the league’s perspective,” said Marge Ahrens, co-president of the Kansas league, “we don’t just throw away people who say they want to vote.”
These are citizens who are trying to register, Ahrens said, but they’ve run up against the complexity of the law, which requires documentation such as a birth certificate or passport.
The fact that more than 30,000 such applications are pending, with 1,100 added each month, she said, shows that the law is cumbersome.
Either the applicants don’t understand the law’s requirements or they’re stymied by the cost, time and effort it takes to obtain the documents, she said. The young and disadvantaged are often hit hardest, Ahrens said.
“That’s a theme with these voter restriction laws, as we call them,” she said. “In the end, it’s a kind of elitism.”
Doug Bonney, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said election officials have long kept incomplete applications “in suspense,” prior to the new proof-of-citizenship requirements, and there was never a need to clear the records.
So why should there be a time limit now that it’s more difficult to register? he asked.
“I don’t see any reason to limit it,” Bonney said, “except that with 30,000 now on the list, it’s gotten to be an embarrassment for Kobach.”
The hearing is set for Wednesday in Topeka. The 90-day rule is administrative, and Kobach has the authority to implement it.
One complication of the state’s proof-of-citizenship law is that federal elections have no such requirement.
Two voters are challenging Kobach’s decision that those who register to vote using a federal form, which doesn’t require proof of citizenship, can’t cast ballots in state and local elections. A Shawnee County district judge last week allowed that lawsuit to go forward.
Earlier this summer, Kobach lost his bid to add the state’s proof-of-citizenship requirements to the federal form. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling against that idea, leaving in place a system in which Kansas voters who register with the federal form can only vote in federal races.
In 2011, the Kansas Legislature passed the Safe and Fair Elections Act, which included a photo ID requirement for voting and proof-of-citizenship rules for voter registration. The latter took effect in January 2013.
After Republican Gov. Sam Brownback signed the bill in June, Kobach became one of the first secretaries of state in the country with the power to prosecute election crimes.
Kobach said he’s now ready to do just that. He expects to announce his first set of prosecutions in September or October.
“There will be several cases,” he said. “These cases are going to be double voting cases, a person who has voted in multiple states, which is a violation of state and federal law.”
He said the cases require “a significant amount” of documentary evidence, including obtaining the forms the individual signed in both states, which can be time-consuming.
Some cases go back to 2010 and must be prosecuted this year before the statute of limitations runs out, he said.
Many of the initial cases had been presented to county attorneys for prosecution but hadn’t been acted on, he said. That’s not a criticism of county attorneys, he said, because they are often swamped with big caseloads and rightly prioritize violent crime cases.
“We understand that can happen,” he said, “which is why the secretary of state and the attorney general can provide this important assistance.”
One criticism of giving the secretary of state the authority to prosecute voter fraud was that the attorney general and county attorneys could easily handle the few cases that arise.
Kobach maintains election crimes occur regularly. Last month he unveiled a new feature at the secretary of state website inviting residents to report election violations using a “Stop Voter Fraud” form at http://www.sos.ks.gov or by calling the voter fraud hotline, (800) 262-8683.
Examples of violations include “disorderly election conduct,” “intimidation of voters,” “voting without being qualified” and “voting twice in the same election.”
But Bonney of the ACLU said he would be surprised if there were more than a handful of cases of people voting in two jurisdictions. And such cases typically aren’t nefarious acts, he said.
“It’s not something that’s a threat to democracy as we know it,” Bonney said
Michael Smith, associate professor of political science at Emporia State University, said academic research finds very little actual voter fraud but occasional “mistaken voter fraud.”
What appears as fraud at first turns out to be errors in the recording of addresses, he said. Or it involves people with the same or similar names and birthdates.
“Voter fraud is incredibly rare,” Smith said.
New questions arose recently about whether the state’s voter ID law had the effect of suppressing turnout in some areas.
The Kansas advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission announced in late July it would hold hearings early next year on the law, citing a government finding that suggested a reduction in voter turnout in Kansas and Tennessee was attributable to those state’s voter ID laws.
Kobach said he was happy to testify and to demonstrate the flawed methodology of the analysis by the Government Accountability Office. The study compared the 2008 and 2012 election years, a faulty comparison because those elections didn’t have the same type of races, which affects turnout, he said.
A similar ballot to 2012 would have been in 2000, another presidential year with no U.S. Senate race, he said. In comparing those years, before and after enactment of the the voter ID law, turnout was a tiny bit higher in 2012, Kobach said.
“So voter ID had a negligible impact,” he said, “but if it had any, it was positive.”
Smith of Emporia State was less worried about the study’s methodology than Kobach is. Analysts typically know how to control for variables, he said.
Smith said studies of photo ID laws have shown “mixed results” in terms of finding any impact on turnout. But a review he did with two other analysts showed that proof of citizenship was another matter.
They estimated such laws would reduce turnout by more than 3 percent in a county with 30 percent poverty, he said.
Proof-of-citizenship requirements are a problem for those who must order documents from other states, which takes time and money, he said, and for older people who may not have birth certificates.
“It’s small,” he said of the effect, “but it’s enough to swing a close election. I think the real focus of inquiry needs to be on proof-of-citizenship laws.”