Getting an early start on his No. 1 campaign pledge, Secretary of State Kris Kobach unveiled a bill Tuesday requiring all voters to show photo identification at the polls and proof of U.S. citizenship to register for the first time.
If the Secure and Fair Elections — SAFE — Act passes, Kobach said, Kansas would "stand head and shoulders above the other 49 states in securing the integrity of elections."
Opponents say Kobach is using scare tactics and tapping scarce state resources to attack a nonexistent problem and expand his influence.
"There are far more sightings of Bigfoot than there is voter fraud in Kansas," said Kevin Myles, president of the Wichita and Kansas chapters of the NAACP.
He said the voter ID program will cost money to administer and will disenfranchise people who don't have the required documents close at hand.
Under the SAFE Act, a voter at the polls would be required to present government-issued photo ID to obtain a ballot.
Absentee voters could write their driver's license or state ID number on their application. County election officials would be required to compare the voters' signature to their registration card before sending the ballot.
New voters, either those who move to the state or young people coming of age, would be required to provide proof of citizenship, most likely a birth certificate, passport, naturalization number or tribal ID.
People over 65 could vote using expired IDs and people with incomes less than 150 percent of the poverty level —$33,075 for a family of four — could qualify for a free ID card and/or a free birth certificate copy.
Kobach said his hope "is that Kansas will be to stopping election fraud what Arizona is to stopping illegal immigration."
Kobach, sworn in as secretary of state last week, was one of the principal authors of Arizona's new immigration law, which orders immigrants to carry documentation of legal residency and grants police broad new powers to investigate and detain anyone they suspect may be in the country illegally.
The voter ID bill is expected to easily pass into law.
A similar measure was approved by legislators in 2008 but vetoed by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. Newly elected Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, has expressed support for the ID requirements.
Kobach was joined by Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, who said backers had already signed 36 cosponsors by 2 p.m. Tuesday and expected more by day's end.
A group called the Kansas Voter Coalition has scheduled a news conference today to kick off opposition to the bill.
The coalition includes the state chapters of the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the National Organization for Women and the ACLU, along with the Wichita chapter of Church Women United, the Sedgwick County Council of Elders, and the Peace and Social Justice Center.
They note that secretary of state records released in 2009 showed only seven cases of alleged fraud referred to authorities — only one of which was prosecuted — in the previous five years.
"There have been 10 million votes cast in Kansas in the last six years," Myles said. "You've got a one in 10 million chance of being hit by parts falling off an airplane."
The last two secretaries of state, Democrat Chris Biggs and Republican Ron Thornburgh, had said voting fraud was not a significant issue.
Kobach contends that the actual cases greatly exceed the prosecutions.
He said he will present evidence in legislative hearings on 80 complaints by voters, most of which went uninvestigated.
Myles also strenuously objected to a part of the bill that would give Kobach's office authority to prosecute suspected voting fraud, which is now the province of the attorney general's office and district and county attorneys.
Myles said Kobach "is saying 'Just trust me, there really is a problem. If you give me a lot of money, I'll go out and find evidence of the problem I'm theorizing about.' "
Kobach said his office needs prosecutorial authority because many local prosecutors don't see voting complaints as significant enough to justify spending limited resources on investigation.
He said national polls show more than eight out of 10 voters support voter ID laws and he thinks in Kansas, that's even higher.
Kinzer said voters he contacted in the recently concluded campaign heavily favored ID requirements.
"Frankly, it doesn't make sense to most voters that we don't have to have a photo ID for the purposes of voting," he said.
In addition to the voting ID requirements, the proposed bill would raise voting more than once in an election from a misdemeanor to a felony under state law. It also increases penalties for other election-related misdemeanors.