TOPEKA — Kansas no longer plans to require people renewing driver's licenses to produce proof that they're living in the U.S. legally, Revenue Secretary Nick Jordan said Monday, confirming a policy shift with implications for the state's administration of a separate proof-of-citizenship requirement for new voters.
Jordan said in an interview with The Associated Press that the Department of Revenue, which oversees licensing, will develop a program in coming months in which drivers renewing their licenses can voluntarily present birth certificates, passports or other citizenship documents and have it noted on their licenses. Kansas law already requires people obtaining a new license to provide proof of their lawful residency.
State officials had previously planned for such a requirement to be extended to all license renewals under a 2005 federal anti-terrorism law designed to make states' licenses more secure. But federal officials recently declared that Kansas is among 20 states complying with the federal statute, even without requiring proof of legal residency to renew a driver's license.
Many Kansas legislators had assumed the requirement would be universal for both renewing and obtaining a new driver's license when they enacted a state law taking effect this year to mandate that new voters provide proof of their U.S. citizenship when registering. Lawmakers believed having the requirement in place for driver's licenses would make it easier to administer the rule for new voters.
But the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, meeting resistance from states, repeatedly delayed implementation of the federal "Real ID" requirement for driver's licenses. Jordan said his agency responded to concerns that some Kansas residents wouldn't be able to produce the necessary documents — and would be without a valid driver's license — as well as to cues from DHS that it wouldn't, for example, block people from flying if they had a license that didn't meet the federal "Real ID" policy.
"The way Homeland Security is framing this now, that may be fine to get you through the airport gate," Jordan said. "We just want to make it convenient for Kansans, and this seems the best way to do it."
The department's decision comes amid an ongoing debate over the proof-of-citizenship rule for new voters. The registrations of about 17,000 prospective voters are on hold because they haven't yet provided the proper papers to election officials. They can't legally cast ballots until they do.
House Elections Committee Chairman Scott Schwab, an Olathe Republican, said Jordan's comments Monday were the first he'd heard that GOP Gov. Sam Brownback's administration had shifted its plans on driver's licenses. He said lawmakers based the election law on the original driver's license plans, "and now they're backpedaling."
"When they change direction without letting us know that they're changing direction, it's disappointing," Schwab said.
The shift in Kansas comes after a controversy in Missouri over complying with the federal Real ID requirements. Missouri's Department of Revenue director resigned in April, and three months later, the Democratic governor signed legislation preventing the agency from making or keeping copies of personal documents presented by people seeking driver's licenses.
In Kansas, the secretary of state's office said that at the beginning of the month, more than 80 percent of the voter registrations on hold came from people who filled out forms in state driver's license offices.
Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, championed the proof-of-citizenship rule for new voters as a way to prevent ballots from being cast by non-citizens. He said at the end of 2012, his office found 15 non-citizens who were registered to vote, including one who'd voted in multiple elections.
Kobach wasn't critical of the Department of Revenue but said that if it had stuck with its original plan on driver's licenses, "the vast majority" of registrations that might be put on hold would have been addressed. The department notifies election officials when people who've filled out voter registration forms at driver's license offices have submitted proper citizenship papers.
Jordan noted that in late August, it began providing prospective voters who fill out registration forms at driver's license offices with additional printed information saying they still must provide citizenship papers to election officials.
By early October, he said, the department hopes to begin accepting and electronically scanning citizenship documents even if people don't need them in renewing their licenses.
Jordan said the department will help with administering the proof-of-citizenship requirement for new voters, "But we've got to remember, we're a driver's license office, and people are coming in for a driver's license, and we want to move them through."