Is voter registration becoming obsolete?

Several days after the Nov. 6 general election, Douglas County officials gathered in the courthouse for the official canvass of votes.

One of the main tasks during that meeting was to sift through stacks of provisional ballots that were cast by people who either showed up at the wrong polling place or whose names, for whatever reason, did not show up on the county’s official voter registration list.

Among the more common problems, County Clerk Jamie Shew said at the time, involved people who thought they had registered when they obtained their drivers licenses. But in many cases, he said, the information did not get transferred from the Department of Revenue to local voter registration rolls.

It was at that point in the meeting that County Commission Chairman Mike Gaughan asked a question for which no one had an immediate answer:

Given the new laws in Kansas requiring people to show photo identification at the polls, is there really any need for the state to continue requiring a separate voter registration process?

“Right now, the voters are penalized for errors made somewhere in the system,” Gaughan said during an interview later. “Whether it’s at the very beginning or somewhere along the way, the penalty is on the voter and they are forced to jump through extra hoops” by casting provisional ballots.

“Any time you’re looking at provisional ballots, you’re looking at people who believed they were eligible to vote but who, for one reason or another, were asked to vote provisionally,” he said.

But those extra hoops could be viewed as unnecessary, Gaughan said, given that voters now have to show a photo ID at the polls. In many cases, those ID’s – drivers licenses or state-issued ID cards – contain all, or most, of the information needed to prove a person is eligible to vote: their name; address; and verification that they are 18 years of age or older.

As it turns out, Gaughan isn’t the only one starting to question the need for voter registration.

Michael Lynch, a political science professor at Kansas University, is currently working on a study about the impact that voter ID laws had on turnout in Kansas. He says registration requirements themselves can deter many people from voting.

Currently, North Dakota is the only state that has dispensed with voter registration altogether, he said. Eight other states – Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming – as well as the District of Columbia allow instant voter registration at the polls on Election Day. And Lynch said open voting without registration is common in other democracies outside the United States.

“In a lot of countries you don’t have to register as a separate act from voting,” Lynch said. “If you’re on the list of being a citizen, you’re on the list to vote and you don’t have to take an affirmative action to go and be eligible to vote like you do in the U.S.”

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, however, said he doesn’t believe the ID laws that he championed through the Kansas legislature have made voter registration obsolete, and he thinks separate registration still serves an important purpose.

“The first and foremost answer to the question is that voter registration allows for checks at the front end of the process to ensure that the person is an eligible voter,” Kobach said.

For one thing, he said, the photo ID law in Kansas is only meant to require voters to prove their identity. Many forms of ID that are allowed in Kansas, including military and student ID’s, do not show the person’s address and do not necessarily verify that they are a U.S. citizen or legal resident of Kansas.

Also, Kobach said, those ID’s do not verify whether a person is a convicted felon who is still on parole or in some other form of custody of the Department of Corrections.

Finally, he said, voter registration helps political parties and candidates by identifying voters’ party registration, and it helps local election officials plan for the number of ballots they’ll need to print and the number of polling places they’ll need to set up in various neighborhoods.

But other experts say those obstacles could be overcome through other means beside requiring voters to register.

Mark Joslyn, also a political science professor at KU, says the registration process primarily serves the interests of politicians to control and limit the number and types of people who can vote.

“Studies show same-day registration increases turnout,” Joslyn said. “So if your goal is to increase participation, why wouldn’t you do it? But if you’re the dominant party, and you’ve been advantaged by the current system, why would you change it?”