Topeka A southwestern Kansas town's election next month on the financing of a new municipal swimming pool will be the first test of a much-debated state law that requires voters to show photo identification at the polls.
The law takes effect Sunday. On Jan. 10, the 2,200 residents of Cimarron, about 175 miles west of Wichita, will decide whether to impose a 1.25 percent sales tax to help finance the new pool and cover its operating costs.
Gray County Clerk Bonnie Swartz said Tuesday that she's not anticipating significant problems, though she expects some voters will be frustrated if they forget to bring ID. She said if turnout is strong, 40 percent of registered voters, or about 480 people, may cast ballots.
"There are going to be some who say, 'You know who I am,'" she said. "It's harder to enforce this type of a law in a small community because everybody knows everybody."
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who pushed legislators earlier this year to enact the photo ID requirement as an anti-fraud measure, said he plans to travel to Gray County to observe the voting. He said his office is planning an education campaign ahead of the poll.
"It will give us some indicators of how the voters will respond to the new requirement," Kobach said. "We'll be collecting data on what percentage of people forget their IDs."
In pushing for the law, Kobach released a report showing that the secretary of state's office had received about six dozen reports of election irregularities involving more than 200 ballots from 1997 through 2010. He took the reports as a sign of a bigger problem, but skeptics said the scanty count of complaints didn't justify a voter ID law that could suppress turnout among poor, minority and elderly voters.
Kansas House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, said he doubts an election on a local ballot question in a small town is a good test of how the law will work in the presidential election.
"I think we just have to do our best to get the word out to people and make sure that it is a forgiving process for those who are trying to comply with the law and simply forget their IDs," he said.
The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing a photo ID law in Texas and last week blocked South Carolina from implementing its new statute requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, during a speech in Texas earlier this month, called on political parties to "resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success."
Kansas legislators also approved a Kobach proposal this year to require people registering to vote for the first time in Kansas to produce proof that they're citizens, but that requirement doesn't take effect until January 2013.
Kobach, who served in the Justice Department under former Republican President George W. Bush, has criticized the Holder-led Justice Department for being overly political and has expressed confidence that the law won't suppress turnout.
The law taking effect Sunday lists eight forms of photo ID that will be valid at the polls, including a driver's license, a state identification card, a military ID or a state permit to carry a concealed handgun. Also, if people forget ID, the law allows them to cast a provisional ballot, then provide ID to county election officials in the next few days, before results are certified.
Cimarron has one polling place, and Swartz said it will be staffed by seven experienced poll workers. Also, she said, it's a 4-H building about a quarter-mile from town, and if voters drive there, they should have acceptable ID with them.
Swartz, also a Republican, said she doesn't have a problem with the law but, "There's not rampant voter fraud."
Cimarron officials estimate the new sales tax will raise $215,000 a year, backing $2.3 million worth of bonds for the new pool's construction, with money left over to cover annual operating costs. The new pool would replace a 40-year-old one that is leaking.
Mayor Gilbert Benton said the city is timing the election so the new facility is ready by Memorial Day 2013, when the pool typically opens.
As for Cimarron providing the first test of the voter ID law, Benton said, "Honestly, we didn't think about that."