Topeka — The top elections official in Kansas said Tuesday that he'll push for a change in state law to start requiring some potential voters to provide proof of their U.S. citizenship beginning June 15, six months earlier than expected.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach told The Associated Press that the proposal he'll submit to legislators today would ensure the rule applies to this year's presidential elections. The House Elections Committee was scheduled to meet this morning to consider sponsoring the plan.
Kansas has a proof-of-citizenship requirement for people who register to vote in the state for the first time and for people who re-register in Kansas after living outside the state, but the rule isn't scheduled to take effect until Jan. 1, 2013. Kobach said he wants to move up the effective date so that it will be in place when voter registration begins to surge ahead of the vote for president in November.
Kobach, a Republican, pushed legislators last year to impose requirement, but some legislators were wary of the idea. Kobach is a former University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor who's become nationally known for helping state and local officials draft measures designed to crack down on illegal immigration, and he helped draft tough laws in Alabama and Arizona. He contends a proof-of-citizenship requirement will prevent illegal immigrants from registering to vote, but he sees the rule as part of a broader attempt to combat election fraud.
"We want the protection in place before the spike in registrations," he said.
Kobach said as soon as legislators enacted the proof-of-citizenship requirement that he'd push to have the effective date changed, but he hadn't publicly disclosed his preferred date until Tuesday.
The Kansas law accepts 13 types of documents as proof of citizenship, including a birth certificate or a passport. A driver's license is sufficient if the state issuing it requires proof of citizenship before issuing the license. Kobach noted that if people can't provide any of the specified documents, they still can submit other evidence of their citizenship and appeal to the State Election Board.
Critics of the proof-of-citizenship rule contend it will suppress voter registration, particularly among poor and minority voters. Kobach strong disagrees, saying it hasn't proven true in other states, such as Georgia.
According to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, Alabama, Kansas and Tennessee enacted proof-of-citizenship laws last year, joining Arizona and Georgia.
Kansas also has a law that took effect this year requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls. Last month, the U.S. Justice Department blocked South Carolina from implementing a photo ID law, and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, during a speech in Texas in December, called on political parties to "resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success."
Kansas state Rep. Ann Mah, of Topeka, the ranking Democrat on the House Elections Committee, said Kobach's push to move up the starting date of the state's proof-of-citizenship rule will give federal officials "a good reason to look at Kansas."
"Things are going to be confusing enough for folks," Mah said, noting the photo ID requirement already has taken effect. "Let's get one thing in place at a time."
Mah also said she doubts the state can do an effective job of educating residents about the proof-of-citizenship requirement if it takes effect June 15.
"There's no reason to bring it forward," she said.
But Kobach said his office already has prepared television ads for such a campaign.
Kobach served in the Justice Department under former President George W. Bush, a Republican, and he's criticized the Holder-led Justice Department, under Democratic President Barack Obama, as too political, particularly in handling election fraud and immigration issues.
A year ago, he said the secretary of state's office had received 59 reports of potential election irregularities affecting at least 221 ballots since 1997.
He said Tuesday that his office has an additional 41 cases of fraud from the 2010 election, nearly three-quarters of them involving either felons voting illegally or people casting ballots in two locations. Such cases are being forwarded to local prosecutors, he said.
Kobach argued that such statistics show the state should have its anti-fraud measures in place as quickly as possible. But Mah said problems remain rare and Kobach still can't demonstrate that illegal immigrants voted in 2010 elections.