Government & Politics

Johnson County election office changes course, says it will hand out federal registration form

Voters headed into the Woodson Avenue Bible Church in Overland Park to vote in August.
Voters headed into the Woodson Avenue Bible Church in Overland Park to vote in August.

Johnson County election officials said just days before voter registration ended that they were not handing out a federal form that allows people to register to vote without proving they are a U.S. citizen.

That changed after questions from The Kansas City Star about whether that decision may have violated the National Voter Registration Act.

Monday afternoon, the day before voter registration in Kansas ended, Johnson County election commissioner Ronnie Metsker said the federal form was now available at the election office. Up until that point, the office had been handing out a state form that follows a Kansas law that makes people prove they are citizens in order to vote.

Voters can now get a federal form if they ask for one, Metsker said.

The battle over voting rights in Kansas has been been the subject of a series of high profile court cases in recent months. A set of judge’s orders opened up the 2016 election to thousands of voters who never proved they were U.S. citizens.

Through those orders, the state was told it had to allow voters who registered with the federal form, or at a motor vehicles office, to cast a full ballot in November’s election. Critics of the Kansas law worried that it was hurting voter registration and disenfranchising Kansans.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has passionately supported the state law, and continued to argue in court that thousands of people shouldn’t be allowed to vote until they prove they are citizens.

Metsker admitted there was some confusion about the ongoing court cases. But he said even though the office didn’t make the federal form available until the day before the registration deadline, he didn’t think it impacted voter registration. He said the office had still been accepting the federal form, even though it had not been handing it out. Applicants could get the form online.

“We may have inadvertently made it awkward or some level of inconvenient,” he said. “But I don’t think we’ve stopped anyone from actually getting registered.”

That policy drew criticism from the League of Women Voters of Kansas and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Under the National Voter Registration Act, the federal form must be made available.

“Based on just the language of the statute and our understanding of what it requires, it appears that is violating the NVRA,” ACLU attorney Sophia Lin Lakin said of Johnson County’s earlier decision to not give out the federal form.

And she said even with the change, Johnson County may still be violating the National Voter Registration Act by making people request the federal form.

“It’s a shame that it’s taken this long for that to happen,” Lin Lakin said. “... More access to the form is better than nothing.”

Metsker said last week that he didn’t recall any direction from the Kansas Secretary of State’s office that he had to make the federal form readily available. That changed on Monday, he said, when the office told the election office to change.

“We have not provided that federal form at our office for at least 12 years,” Metsker said.

Kathy Spann, the assistant election commissioner in Johnson County, said last week that the state had indicated they prefer the Kansas form.

Marge Ahrens, co-president of The League of Women Voters of Kansas, said the group began using the federal form to register voters for the 2016 election because it’s quicker and only requires people to swear they are U.S. citizens, rather than bring in documents to prove it.

“If a federal form is not available, in paper, at all voter registration sites as the National Voter Registration Act apparently indicates, then persons who do not have computers and computer access, what it means is, it makes it a matter of privilege,” Ahrens said.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw