Editorial: Election mess

Legal battles over the state’s new voter registration laws are in danger of derailing Kansas elections.

Kansans probably didn’t need anyone to tell them what a mess the state’s election system is in, but the assessment of a Washburn University law professor, who’s an expert on Kansas election law, offers additional reason for alarm — and additional reason for the Kansas Legislature to take some action before the August primary election.

Reggie Robinson, a Lawrence resident who previously served as president and CEO of the Kansas Board of Regents, told a Lawrence Rotary Club audience on Monday that a two-tiered election, in which some people were allowed only to vote in federal elections, is a real possibility for the state. Such an election would create havoc for local election officials, but, even worse, questions about the legality of a two-tiered election could leave the state’s election results open to legal challenge.

The state currently is awaiting the decision of a federal judge in Wichita on whether the federal Election Assistance Commission should be required to add a proof-of-citizenship element to the forms it uses in Kansas and Arizona. Federal forms — the ones used to register voters when they get their drivers licenses — currently don’t require proof of citizenship documentation. In Kansas, nearly 15,000 voters have had their registrations placed “in suspense” because they have not provided proof of citizenship.

As Robinson explained, if the judge denies the states’ request, those voters will be registered — but only to vote in federal elections for Congress and president. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has indicated his intention to move forward with a two-tiered election with two separate voter pools.

There are other legal questions pending. Kobach recently asked the state’s Office of Vital Statistics to check the “in suspense” registration list against Kansas birth certificates. That confirmed the citizenship of about 7,700 Kansas natives, who were removed from the list, but it raises additional questions that could be pursued in a legal discrimination case. The process discriminated against people who weren’t born in Kansas, as well as against anyone whose current name is different than the one on their birth certificate — including many married women. Both groups have as much right to vote in Kansas as the 7,700 people who didn’t have to present proof of citizenship but had their registrations verified anyway.

The Kansas and Arizona laws are the subject of legal challenges that likely won’t be resolved before the Aug. 5 primary election, and, as Robinson noted, there certainly is not enough time for appeals.

Although they have shown no inclination to do so, the only reasonable course is for the Kansas governor and legislators to step into this situation and pull back the state’s proof-of-citizenship law until the legal and practical issues that have stymied its implementation can be settled.

As it stands, the threats the proof-of-citizenship law pose to the integrity of state elections are far more serious than any perceived threat of non-citizens attempting to vote in Kansas.