Topeka — Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said Thursday that he's not giving up on having a proof-of-citizenship requirement for new voters in place ahead of next year's elections, despite the state Senate's rejection of the idea.
State law already says that people who are registering to vote for the first time in Kansas will have to provide a birth certificate, passport, or other proof of U.S. citizenship to election officials. The rule was enacted this year at Kobach's urging but doesn't take effect until January 2013, a year later than he wanted.
The same law also will require voters to show photo identification at the polls, starting next year. Kobach wanted the proof-of-citizenship requirement to take effect at the same time and authority for his office to file and prosecute election fraud cases in state courts. But senators had insisted on the later start date for the proof-of-citizenship requirement and had removed the new prosecutorial power for Kobach's office before the legislation passed.
The Republican secretary of state praised the compromise version of the new law as a historic step toward combatting election fraud and as a model for other states. But he also didn't stop pushing for the stronger version, and on Wednesday, the Senate rejected a tougher bill on a 23-15 vote.
"We didn't get it, but I think there will be an opportunity to get it next year," Kobach told The Associated Press during an interview. "We've got to get this change done sooner rather than later."
During Wednesday's debate, some Kobach critics renewed longstanding arguments that election fraud is nowhere near as serious a problem as Kobach says it is, while others resented his efforts to revise a law that had strong bipartisan support.
"You don't unravel the deal after it's finished," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat. "And he needs to learn that."
Opponents of Kobach's proposals contend the photo ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements will suppress turnout and prevent some Kansans from registering to vote — arguments Kobach strongly disputes.
To deal with such concerns, senators insisted on delaying the proof-of-citizenship requirement. They argued the delay would give the state time to educate prospective voters. It also was designed to allow the state to put in place a new record scanning system, so it could comply with federal requirements to issue secure driver's licenses, then provide copies of citizenship documents electronically to election officials.
But Kobach said Thursday that Kansas typically sees a wave of voter registrations in the months ahead of a presidential election. He said federal laws designed to prevent citizens from being disenfranchised also make it difficult for states to remove people from the rolls even if they weren't eligible to register.
Kobach said a check of voter registration rolls this year against driver's license records showed that 67 non-citizens with licenses were registered. The state has about 1.7 million registered voters.
"If we don't have this protection in place when the wave hits, we will see hundreds more aliens on the voter rolls," he said.
Also, to bolster arguments that election fraud is a serious problem, Kobach released a study in January that said his office had received 59 reports of alleged irregularities involving at least 221 ballots since 1997.
But only a handful of cases have been prosecuted. Some allegations listed by Kobach were based on vague reports of potential wrongdoing, and most hadn't been thoroughly investigated. Only a few involved allegations that non-citizens voted.
Kobach critics contend many perceived irregularities result from mistakes by prospective voters and even election officials themselves, not deliberate fraud. Last year, before Kobach was elected, the secretary of state's office said the problem of non-citizens registering could be solved with better training at driver's licenses bureaus, where people are allowed to register to vote.
And Sen. Jean Schodorf, a Wichita Republican, said: "There is a not a problem in this state of voter fraud."
Kobach also attributed the defeat of the bill Wednesday to the provisions giving his office prosecutorial power, though he and his allies noted that other agencies have similar power. Opponents of the idea question whether it's necessary.
But the secretary of said, despite Wednesday's vote, he's pleased with work this year on election issues.
"I think some were making a bigger deal about this than it is," he said of the Senate' rejection of the latest bill.
The law enacted this year was contained in HB 2067. The measure revising that law is House Sub for SB 129.