Topeka A Kansas Senate committee endorsed an election fraud bill Thursday after members rewrote legislation from Secretary of State Kris Kobach to delay the proposed start of his plan to require anyone registering to vote in the state for the first time to prove they're citizens.
The Ethics and Elections Committee also stripped the measure of provisions Kobach sought to increase penalties for some election crimes and give the secretary of state's office the power to file and prosecute election fraud cases in state courts, along with the attorney general and county prosecutors.
But the committee kept intact a proposal from Kobach to require voters to show photo identification at the polls, starting next year. That provision would make Kansas the 10th state with a photo ID requirement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The proof-of-citizenship requirement would take effect in 2013, instead of 2012, as Kobach proposed. He argued postponing it would only delay an effective step for keeping non-citizens, including illegal immigrants, from registering.
But the rewritten bill, endorsed on a voice vote, had bipartisan support, while Democrats have opposed the Republican secretary of state's undiluted proposals, claiming they're likely to suppress registration numbers and voter turnout. The measure goes to the Senate for debate, probably next week.
"I think it's a piece of legislation that we can vote for," said Sen. Kelly Kultala, of Kansas City, one of two Democrats on the nine-member committee. "It's a good compromise."
The House approved the bill last month, voting 83-36 for a version Kobach fully endorsed, containing his voter photo-ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements starting next year, his tougher penalties for election crimes and prosecutorial authority for the secretary of state's office.
But after the Senate committee's meeting, Kobach took its changes in stride, saying the measure still contains the core of his proposals and will combat election fraud. Senators' action mean the final version of the bill is likely to be written by negotiators for the two chambers.
"I wouldn't say it's Kobach-lite. It's Kobach, minus a few critical components, but I wouldn't go as far as to say it's sugar-free just yet," the secretary of state said. "We're a long way from the final wording."
Kobach has said he wants to give Kansas the strongest laws against election fraud in the nation but says his proposals won't hurt registration numbers or turnout.
In January, he released a report that the secretary of state's office has received 59 reports of alleged irregularities involving at least 221 ballots since 1997 — twice as many as documented by an internal report three years ago. He suggested those reports represent perhaps only 10 percent of the irregularities that had actually occurred.
But critics contend many perceived irregularities boil down to mistakes by prospective voters and even election officials themselves, not deliberate fraud.
"I don't think there's voter fraud in the state of Kansas," Sen. Roger Reitz, a Manhattan Republican who cast the only vote against advancing the bill from committee, said after the meeting. "I don't know that we need to do all this."
Yet Kobach won last year's election with 59 percent of the vote after making election fraud his key campaign issues, and even some skeptical Democrats see widespread public support for requiring voters to show ID at the polls. Kultala said the Senate committee's version of the bill is acceptable because it provides for free photo IDs from the state.
But Kobach's critics still worry that the proof-of-citizenship requirement will hamper, if not eliminate, door-to-door registration drives or registration tables at libraries, malls and other public places. Kobach has sought to counter those fears by including provisions allowing people to submit their proof of citizenship, such as a copy of a birth certificate or passport, after their registration forms are turned in to election officials.
Kultala proposed the delay in the proof-of-citizenship requirement, saying an extra year would give the state more time to educate people. Also, she said, it would allow the Department of Revenue to get a planned system for scanning citizenship documents of people seeking driver's licenses up and running — so the documents can be provided electronically to election officials.
But Kobach said the delay actually makes the job of educating people more complicated and potentially more costly and hinders efforts to keep voter registration rolls clean.