Government & Politics

Kris Kobach voting law may disenfranchise Kansas voters, panel says

Kobach repeats Trump's unsupported voter fraud claims

In November 2016, the top election official in Kansas claimed that millions voted illegally in 2016, but can't point to hard evidence to support that.
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In November 2016, the top election official in Kansas claimed that millions voted illegally in 2016, but can't point to hard evidence to support that.

A civil rights advisory panel is urging a more thorough review of a Kansas voting law after finding evidence that the law may be disenfranchising voters of color.

Kansas passed a law in 2011 that set up requirements that voters must show a photo ID at the polls and must provide proof of citizenship when they register.

The policies were adopted at the urging of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach as a way to prevent voter fraud. But a draft report from the Kansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights details concerns that the law “may have been written and implemented with improper, discriminatory intent.” The report was obtained by The Star.

Kobach said that is an outrageous accusation and called the evidence cited by the committee poorly reasoned.

“It looks like it’s been written by a third-grader,” Kobach said in a phone call Monday.

The report urges the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to investigate whether the Kansas law, which it notes is the strictest in the nation, has violated the federal Voting Rights Act and other voting laws in its implementation.

Under the Kansas law, which is known as the Safe and Fair Elections Act, prospective voters who fail to provide proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or passport, are placed on a list of suspended voters and blocked from voting.

The report from the advisory committee cites an analysis by Emporia State University professor Michael Smith showing a correlation between census tracts with a high number of African-Americans and areas with a disproportionate number of voters on the suspended voters list.

“It does look like lower-income precincts with a large African-American population are affected more than others,” Smith said in a phone call Monday. “It doesn’t seem to be race-neutral in its effect.”

The report notes that eligible voters “may be required to pay for their documents” and that this “may effectively be compared to a poll tax,” a fee for voting that was used to disenfranchise African-Americans in the Jim Crow-era South, a practice that was abolished under the 24th Amendment.

A series of state and federal court rulings prevented Kobach from fully enforcing the requirement during the most recent election, but those cases remain pending for future elections.

Kobach has pointed to increasing voter registration numbers as a sign that the law is not keeping qualified Kansans from voting.

The committee also concludes in the report that improper and insufficient training of poll workers has resulted in eligible voters being turned away at the polls.

Carrie O’Toole, at the time a member of Potawatomi Tribal Council, told the committee a poll worker refused to accept her tribal ID as a valid government ID.

“I was so flustered and in shock that I forgot to ask for a provisional ballot to vote,” O’Toole is quoted in the report.

Each state has a committee to advise the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a federal agency that studies allegations of discrimination.

The Kansas committee wants the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to conduct a national study on voting rights and calls for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to review whether the Kansas law violates the federal Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act and the National Voter Registration Act.

“If such a review reveals areas of noncompliance or conflict with federal law, the Division should take appropriate enforcement action to correct them,” the report says.

The report also asks that the commission issue recommendations to the governor and Kansas Legislature, but some lawmakers are already taking action after seeing the draft.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, a Democrat from Merriam, introduced a bill Monday repealing the SAFE Act based on the report.

“I think we have room for improvement upon our elections system, and I think (the SAFE Act) moved the wrong way,” Ousley said. “From the people I’ve talked to, it’s held more people away from their privilege to vote than it has, I think, deterred illegal voting.”

Rep. Keith Esau, an Olathe Republican who chairs the House elections committee, has asked to see the report.

“I don’t think we’re violating anybody’s rights,” Esau said about the SAFE Act. “We’re protecting the rights of Kansas citizens.”

The report is based on a public hearing that took place in Topeka last January.

Kobach called the report lopsided and said it contained “glaring errors” regarding the percentage of Kansas voters impacted by the law. He said that his office would be sending the committee suggestions for changes, but that he does not expect the thrust of the report to change.

“It appears they obtained testimony almost exclusively from opponents,” said Kobach, contending that an overwhelming majority of Kansans support the policy.

However, the committee did hear from some of the law’s most adamant supporters, including Kobach, who testified that the notion that the proof of citizenship requirement places a burden on voters “depends on how you define burden.”

He was more adamant, however, that the photo ID requirement does not place an extra weight on Kansas voters.

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican and vice chairman of the Senate’s elections committee, also testified to the committee and said he didn’t have a problem with Kobach’s law and its impact on recent elections.

Other lawmakers disagree.

Rep. Melissa Rooker, a Republican from Fairway, said the SAFE Act “puts up some real barriers.”

The state should be making it easier to vote, she said, not more difficult.

“I would welcome further investigation to be sure that the rights of our voters are not trampled upon,” Rooker said.