Government & Politics

Kansas rule change means some votes won’t be counted in August primary

Secretary of State Kris Kobach on Tuesday continued his bid to make it impossible for many Kansans to vote in local and state elections.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach on Tuesday continued his bid to make it impossible for many Kansans to vote in local and state elections. The Associated Press

An estimated 17,000 Kansans who registered to vote at state motor vehicle offices will be able to vote in federal elections this year, but their votes for state and local races won’t be counted.

In a hastily called meeting Tuesday morning, the State Rules and Regulations Board approved the temporary rules one day before advance voting begins for the Aug. 2 primary. The board took the action before allowing the public to comment.

The move appeases a recent court decision while also maintaining a 2013 Kansas law that requires new voters to show their proof of citizenship. That number could grow to 50,000 by the Nov. 8 general election.

The law backed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach has faced legal challenges, including an effort from the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas to end what it described as a two-tiered voter registration system.

Federal law allows people to register to vote in motor vehicle offices across the country. In June, a federal appeals court upheld U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson’s preliminary injunction ordering Kansas to allow people who register without proving U.S. citizenship to vote in the upcoming races for president, U.S. Senate and U.S. House.

Under the rule, such voters will receive provisional ballots, which will be set aside at polling places to be examined later. But county election officials won’t count their votes in state and local races or local ballot questions.

The decision comes during a year when all 165 seats in the Kansas Legislature are up for election.

“I want every single person who is eligible to vote under the laws of Kansas to vote on Aug. 2,” said Bryan Caskey, director of elections at the Kansas secretary of state’s office. “I want 1.7 million people to vote. Unequivocally, I want that. However, I’ve also taken an oath to uphold the laws of the state of Kansas. There is a law that requires everyone who registers to vote to provide proof of citizenship.”

The temporary rule will last 120 days, which means it would cover both the primary election on Aug. 2 and the general election on Nov. 8. Critics of the rule said Tuesday that it doubles down on a state law that has faced serious questions in court. It also could hurt voter turnout in a pivotal election year for Kansas.

Sen. Vicki Schmidt, a Topeka Republican, abstained from voting. She questioned the timing of the rule change, as well as the fact that the regulation was never shown to the Legislature before it adjourned in May or during the special session on education finance in June.

Schmidt is on the ballot this year and faces a primary challenge for her Senate seat. A change of this kind would definitely affect that race, she said. In abstaining, she said, “I feel I have no other choice since I am on the ballot.”

The appeal process of the court’s ruling delayed a proposal being presented earlier, Caskey said during Tuesday’s meeting.

The new rule was approved by a voice vote before the public could comment on it. After the vote, people in the audience asked to be able to talk to the board about the change.

Mark Johnson, a Kansas attorney representing voters affected by the rule change, took issue with the fact that “nobody got to know” that Tuesday’s vote was being held.

“This is the kind of regulation that should get a full hearing, full consideration under the administrative process,” Johnson said.

“… This dishonors the process.”

Rep. Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, said the voters affected by the rule change should be able to have a full ballot unless the court’s decision is overruled. The new regulation, and the state officials’ decision to approve it, was “just wrong,” he said. It was bad for Kansas, he said, and it was a bad way to do law.

“I think these people are trying to interfere in a highly competitive election,” he said. “You look around this state, in the next three weeks from now, there’s going to be a dozen races decided in this state by a hundred votes. Whether it be a state Senate or a House primary and this will have a significant impact.”

Ward noted that the special committee of five hearing Kobach’s proposed rule is comprised of five Republicans, including Kobach.

But Kobach, who has made stiffer voting guidelines a hallmark of his time in office, was not at the meeting. He was attending the GOP presidential platform committee meeting in Cleveland.

“We are preserving our law and ensuring at the same time that we are complying with the federal judge’s order,” Kobach said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Once the public comment portion was over, the meeting was adjourned.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Hunter Woodall: 785-354-1388, @HunterMw