Topeka Secretary of State Kris Kobach said Wednesday that he's optimistic he can persuade Kansas legislators to impose a proof-of-citizenship rule before this year's presidential election, even though critics described his tactics as underhanded.
A law enacted last year will require people registering to vote for the first time in the state to present a birth certificate or other proof of their U.S. citizenship to election officials. But the rule doesn't take effect until January, and Kobach wants to move its effective date up to June 15.
Kobach argues that the rule, which aims to keep illegal immigrants from registering to vote, should be in effect ahead of the normal surge of registrations before a presidential election. Critics contend such a requirement will suppress turnout, particularly among student, poor, minority and elderly voters.
The secretary of state's proposal passed the House, where his fellow conservative Republicans have a majority, but the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee wrapped up its business for the year last month without voting on it. The House Elections Committee revived the proposal before lawmakers started their annual spring break, and the House is expected to vote again on the issue after lawmakers reconvene next week.
"I expect a vote in both chambers," Kobach said. "I'm optimistic."
But Louis Goseland, coordinator of KanVote, a Wichita-based group opposed to Kobach's proposal, accused Kobach and his allies of "trying to do backroom deals" to save his proposal.
"This is really kind of an underhanded way of dealing with this," he said.
Fewer than 10 cases have been reported in Kansas over the past decade in which a non-citizen voted or attempted to vote, and critics of Kobach's proposal have said such numbers don't justify rushing into a proof-of-citizenship rule.
Last year, senators insisted on the Jan. 1, 2013, effective date, worrying that the state and potential voters wouldn't be ready for it before then. Sen. Kelly Kultala, a Kansas City Democrat serving on the Senate elections committee, said she doubts senators' positions have changed.
"He just never knows when to give up," she said of Kobach. "He's like a dog and a bone."
Kobach's office said it found 32 non-citizens registered to vote in Kansas last year, out of about 1.7 million registered voters. He said Wednesday the figure came only from the pool of non-citizens seeking driver's licenses, adding that the number of non-citizens registered is probably higher, though the state has no firm figures.
He said if the proof-of-citizenship rule is not in place in June, "We've missed an opportunity to keep our voter rolls clean."
The House committee revived the proposal by stripping an unrelated, Senate-passed elections bill of its contents and inserting Kobach's proposal. If the House passes the rewritten bill, senators could send it to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback simply by accepting the House's changes — bypassing their skeptical committee with a single up-or-down vote by the entire Senate.
Kobach and House Elections Committee Chairman Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, dismissed criticism of the tactic, saying it only speeds up the legislative process should the Senate want to vote on Kobach's proposal. Such a maneuver has become so common over the past 20 years that legislators have nicknamed it the "gut and go."
"It was in a public meeting," Schwab said. "There was nothing underhanded about it."