Fate of Kansas elections law tied to computer issue

TOPEKA | Progress on modernizing the Kansas computer system for issuing driver's licenses is six months ahead of schedule and could mean that some potential voters will be required to show proof of their U.S. citizenship during this year's presidential election, a key legislator said Monday.

House Elections Committee Chairman Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, said legislators want to be sure the state Division of Vehicles is ready to scan and store electronic copies of documents such as birth certificates and passports before revising a state law that imposes the proof-of-citizenship requirement. The law applies to people registering to vote for the first time in Kansas.

The rule is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2013, but Secretary of State Kris Kobach wants to move the date up to June 15, ahead of the presidential election in November. Schwab's committee is sponsoring a bill containing Kobach's proposal and plans to have hearings by the end of the month.

The issue is tied to a $40 million upgrade of Division of Vehicles computers because legislators want all Kansas residents to be able to register to vote when obtaining or renewing a driver's license and the division's electronic files, available to election officials who need to verify a potential voter's citizenship.

In enacting the proof-of-citizenship requirement last year, lawmakers set its effective date for 2013 because many legislators argued that the delay would give the Division of Vehicles enough time to finish modernizing its computers.

“We've got to get this right the first time,” Schwab said during an interview. “It's really a simple position: If they can do it, we do it. If they can't, then we wait.”

Kansas must finish overhauling its computers for handling driver's licenses to comply with a 2005 law designed to ensure that states verify that residents are in the U.S. legally before issuing them licenses. Kansas already requires proof of legal status when it issues a new license, but with the computer upgrade, the same proof will be required the next time anyone in Kansas renews a license.

Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan told Kobach in a letter last week that “while delays are always possible,” June 15 represents “a reasonable date” for when his department could share electronic copies of documents with election officials.

But some legislators, particularly Democrats, believe the state should wait until 2013, regardless.

“Let's say they're ready to start asking people who are renewing licenses to bring in their birth certificates,” said state Rep. Ann Mah, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the House Elections Committee. “This is going to require a huge education of the drivers.”

Kobach said the effective date of the rule doesn't have to be tied to the upgrade of the Division of Vehicles computers. Though administering the requirement will be more convenient if the division can transfer electronic files to election officials, it's not necessary, he said.

“It was used as an excuse by the legislators who wanted to delay it until after the 2012 election,” he said.

Kobach advocated the proof-of-citizenship requirement as a way to keep illegal immigrants from registering to vote and as part of a broader effort to prevent election fraud. Kobach, a Republican and a former University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor, advises officials in other states who want to crack down on illegal immigration, and he helped write tough immigration laws in Alabama and Arizona.

According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, three states – Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee – enacted proof-of-citizenship laws last year, joining Arizona and Georgia.

Kobach said voter registration surges during the two months before a presidential election, making it “crucial” to have anti-fraud measures in place beforehand. His office reports that the secretary of state has received about 100 reports of possible irregularities in the past 15 years, affecting at least 260 ballots.

Critics note that few cases involve allegations that illegal immigrants attempted to vote. Many involve instances in which people are caught voting twice or questions of whether nursing home employees improperly handled ballots for elderly residents.

Opponents of proof-of-citizenship and photo ID laws believe they will suppress voter registration and turnout, particularly among minorities and the poor.

“I think there is eventually going to be litigation over the birth certificate issue,” said Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat. “And certainly if the date is moved up, you're definitely going to see litigation.”

Kobach disputes that such measures suppress participation. Kansas will accept 13 documents as proof of citizenship for people wanting to register to vote, including a birth certificate or a passport. A driver's license, once renewed, will be sufficient if the state issuing it complies with federal law.

“If there's an organization that wants to bring a claim, we're ready to defend it,” Kobach said of potential litigation. “There's not a single valid argument that can be made against it court.”

Kobach's proposal is HB 2437.


Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

Kansas secretary of state: http://www.kssos.org

Kansas Division of Vehicles: http://www.ksrevenue.org/vehicle.html