Volunteers working with Douglas County to help would-be voters get registered

Donna Bell has been a regular voter in Kansas for more than 30 years. A resident of Lawrence, she says she was born in the United States and so were both of her parents.

So it came as a surprise to her earlier this year when she received a letter saying she would not be able to vote again until she submits papers proving that she is a U.S. citizen.

“I was taken aback,” Bell said during a phone interview. “I’ve never been asked for that before. I have been asked to show ID, but not citizenship. I was taken aback because I wasn’t aware of any changes in law to that extent.”

Bell is among 656 voters in Douglas County, and an estimated 17,700 statewide, whose registrations are “in suspense” because they have not completed the process by providing documents to prove U.S. citizenship.

In Bell’s case, it happened when she moved from Johnson County, where she had lived for about two years, back to Douglas County, where she had lived for many years before. During that process, she said, she cancelled her registration in Johnson County and then tried to reregister in Douglas County.

That made her a “new voter” in Douglas County, which means that under a law passed in 2011, she has to show proof of citizenship in order to complete the registration.

“I had two moves in the last year, so I just have to find where those documents are,” Bell said. “I just haven’t taken the time to find it.”

Soon, however, county officials and community volunteers will be fanning out across the county, trying to contact those voters and help them gather the documents they need.

“We currently are sending letters to those voters, and then we’re going to start a program, probably around the first of the year, when we will send at least a postcard a month,” Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said. “As we get closer to the election, we’re going to follow up with some phone calls.”

But many of the people on the list of registrations in suspense do not have phone numbers, or at least did not provide them when they tried to register. So to reach those people, the League of Women Voters of Lawrence and Douglas County plan to go door-to-door to contact the would-be voters.

“We are still working out procedure,” said Cille King, co-president of the local LWV chapter.

Under the new law, documents that will be accepted include, among others, a birth certificate showing the person was born in the United States, a valid U.S. passport, U.S. naturalization documents, and citizenship documents issued by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“I want to do everything we can to give them the resources they need to give us the information they need in order to vote,” Shew said. “I don’t want us going into an election and not at least having tried to contact them.”

Bell said that after two recent moves, she just doesn’t know exactly where her documents are. But she is determined to find them and complete her registration before next year’s primary and general elections.

“Oh definitely,” she said. “It’s a right that too many people died for.”