What a great day for protecting voting rights in Kansas and elsewhere

A Shawnee County district judge ruled Friday that the votes of 17,500 people will be counted in all races in Tuesday’s primaries.
A Shawnee County district judge ruled Friday that the votes of 17,500 people will be counted in all races in Tuesday’s primaries. The Associated Press

From Kansas to North Carolina to Wisconsin, judges on Friday issued powerful rulings designed to protect the voting rights of Americans.

The most crucial decision locally came in a last-minute victory for 17,500 Kansans, when Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks essentially slapped down part of an overly restrictive 2013 state voter ID law.

The upshot: The votes of those Kansans will count in all races in Tuesday’s primaries in Johnson and Wyandotte counties, and across the Sunflower State as well.

Hendricks’ ruling was a sharp rebuke for Gov. Sam Brownback and the Legislature that approved the questionable law but especially for Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has stubbornly fought to enforce it.

And the decision pointed out the valuable assistance of the American Civil Liberties Union, which took up a lawsuit that criticized Kobach for trying to establish a dual voting system.

Kobach had told these 17,500 people that their votes would count only in federal elections, not in crucial state and local elections, because state law required them to provide proof of citizenship when they register to vote.

They had registered to vote when they also registered their cars at motor vehicle offices. Under federal law, no proof of citizenship is required to get put on the voting rolls in that case.

Hendricks properly brushed aside Kobach’s specious request to uphold the state law’s voter ID requirements.

“Losing one’s vote is an irreparable harm in my opinion,” he said Friday.

Kobach insisted afterward that the judge didn’t have the right to “second-guess the Legislature.” That statement showed a complete lack of knowledge about the rule of law in the United States, in which courts can nullify the actions of elected officials if they conflict with the U.S. Constitution or state constitution.

In this case, Hendricks found that the voting rights of these Kansans were in danger of being curtailed by state officials.

The judge thus appeared to side with the ACLU, which said Kansas was violating the equal protection clauses in the Kansas Constitution.

The right to vote is a cornerstone of American democracy, one that Kobach and too many other Republican elected officials have been trying to chip away at the last few years.

In most cases, the attacks end up imposing new requirements that are harder for older people and the poor to meet, such as getting access to birth certificates and acquiring state-approved identification forms for those who don’t own cars.

Fortunately, courts have been striking down some of these restrictive measures, and that happened regarding two other GOP-passed laws on Friday.

▪ A federal appeals court blocked North Carolina’s voter ID law, saying it tried to reduce black voter turnout by deliberately targeting “African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” The ruling removed the state’s requirement that voters present photo identification at the polls.

The decision said, “We cannot ignore the evidence that, because of race, the legislature enacted one of the largest restrictions of the franchise in modern North Carolina history.”

▪ In Wisconsin, a federal judge threw out parts of a voter ID law that he found were put in place to benefit Republican officeholders.

The Associated Press reported that U.S. District Judge James Peterson “struck down a restriction limiting municipalities to one location for in-person absentee voting, time limits on in-person absentee voting, an increase in residency requirements from 10 to 28 days, and a prohibition on using expired but otherwise qualifying student IDs to vote.”

Kobach often has claimed Kansas needs a strict voter ID law to prevent illegal immigrants from going to the polls. However, critics and judges have questioned that reasoning, often pointing out that cases of illegal voters are almost nonexistent in the Sunflower State.

Brownback and the Legislature even gave Kobach near-unique powers in the nation a few years ago to pursue people he thought were voting illegally. Since then, Kobach has filed charges against only a handful of illegal voters and was forced to drop one case along the way.

In short, there is no evidence at all that stringent proof of citizenship laws are needed to keep illegal immigrants from voting.

Instead, the law passed by the Legislature and defended by Kobach has now affected more than 17,000 Kansans who thought they were doing the right thing by registering to vote when they registered their vehicles.

As judge Hendricks noted, Kobach’s rule could have taken away the constitutional right to vote from an “overwhelming number of U.S. citizens.”

The issue is still alive because another court hearing on the matter is likely to be held next month.

However, the judge’s order should allow the 17,500 Kansans who followed federal voting registration rules to take part in all elections on Tuesday and have their votes counted as well. That’s an extremely positive outcome.