Editorial: Election uncertainty

Unsettled voter registration laws in the state are setting the stage for a confusion and contentious fall election cycle.

With less than two months to go before the June 2 filing deadline for Kansas candidates seeking statewide or national office, questions about the upcoming election cycle abound.

A U.S. District Court in Wichita ruled last month that the U.S. Election Assistance Commission must act immediately to modify federal voter registration forms to accommodate proof-of-citizenship laws in Kansas and Arizona. That decision has been appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by more than a dozen voting rights groups, including the League of Women Voters of the United States, Common Cause, Project Vote and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. Those appealing the decision also asked the Wichita judge to stay his own order while their appeal is being considered.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach indicated that such a stay is unlikely, but, if the request is granted, he will move forward on a plan to hold a two-tiered election in Kansas: one for people who have proved their citizenship and can vote in all the state and federal races and one for the relatively few people who registered with the federal form and would be allowed only to vote in federal races, which this year would be races for U.S. Congress.

In the meantime, the registrations of about 15,900 people who have not presented proof of citizenship are being held “in suspense” at the Kansas Secretary of State’s office. Those names have been forwarded to county election officers but it’s unclear how much progress is being made to obtain proof-of-citizenship on those registrations.

Another major wrinkle for the upcoming election is a new law that will bar voters from changing their party affiliations between the June 1 filing deadline and the Aug. 5 primary. This year, however, voters will be able to change affiliations until July 1, when the law goes into effect. New voters can register with either party until July 15 to vote in the Aug. 5 primary. Or if voters have moved, they can change both their address and their party affiliation until July 15. Or if they just really want to vote in the other party’s primary, they can cancel their registration and re-register with a different affiliation until July 15. Got it?

All of the complexity being added to the state’s election system likely won’t register with many Kansas voters until they arrive at the polls. Local election officials say that even people who are receiving postcards saying their registrations aren’t complete until they present proof of citizenship think they can provide that proof at the polls — but that is too late.

The result likely will be confusion at polling places and many provisional ballots being cast. That, in turn, will lead to plenty of controversy — and perhaps some lawsuits — about which votes should be counted.

Partisan political races have become increasingly contentious in recent years, and the unsettled state of Kansas election laws may make this fall’s elections some of the most contentious the state has seen in many years.