When Kansas legislators were considering a law that would require new Kansas voters to document their citizenship, Secretary of State Kris Kobach assured them that a new computer system being installed by the Division of Motor Vehicles could seamlessly provide citizenship information to county election officials across the state.
Over Kobach’s objections, lawmakers even delayed the start of the proof-of-citizenship requirement for six months to ensure the computer system would be working properly.
Unfortunately, some numbers reported in Monday’s Journal-World confirm that an additional six months — even an additional year — was not sufficient to solve this problem. And thousands of potential Kansas voters are paying the price.
According to the law, which took effect Jan. 1, people are supposed to be able to show proof of citizenship and register to vote when they renew or obtain new drivers licenses through the DMV. Both their registration and citizenship documentation would automatically be sent to the county in which they were registering.
Easy, right? Except that it isn’t working. The DMV says it is sending the documentation to the Secretary of State’s Office, but most of it isn’t finding its way to county election officials. More than 11,000 people — about a third of the applicants statewide who have attempted to use this system since the first of the year — have had their registration applications placed “in suspense” because the counties received the applications but not the proof-of-citizenship documentation.
Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said his office had received about 1,000 registration applications so far this year from various sources including walk-ins to the office and the DMV. In spite of the fact that Shew’s staff has actively worked to contact potential voters to verify their citizenship, 370 registration applications are in suspense. Of those, 310 were forwarded from the DMV.
Kobach acknowledged that the DMV system isn’t working as intended but said citizenship documents were being forwarded by email. Shew said that simply is not the case. He estimated that only about 20 percent of the registrations forwarded to his office from the DMV have the proper citizenship verification.
Shew and other county election officials worry about following up on the large number of in-suspense registrations, especially when their business picks up before next year’s general election. Shew said his office typically receives 4,000 to 5,000 new registrations between an August primary and a November general election. He’s included additional money in next year’s budget request to help hire extra staff to follow up on in-suspense voter registration applications.
The state law has no provision for that follow-up, and it’s up to individual counties how vigorously they pursue potential voters. Registrants who don’t provide — in many cases, for the second time — their proof of citizenship to county officials may or may not be eligible to cast even a provisional ballot in the next election.
Whether this is a technical problem or a human problem, this is not the system that Kobach promised to Kansas legislators who approved the citizenship requirement for voter registration, and the ongoing issues leave the secretary of state vulnerable to allegations that the new requirement will suppress rather than encourage voter participation. Legislators must hold Kobach to account for these problems and make sure they are resolved well before the 2014 elections.