Editorial: Voters still ‘in suspense’

The battle over new Kansas voter registration laws is still going strong — as is the list of voter registrations being held up for proof of citizenship.

For Kansans who thought the mess created by the state’s ill-conceived proof-of-citizenship requirement for new voters eventually soon would resolve itself, think again.

At this point, there’s no end in sight, and prospects for improving the situation before this year’s elections seem slim.

In late 2013, the office of Secretary of State Kris Kobach reported that about 18,000 voter registrations were being held “in suspense” because the would-be voters hadn’t provided the newly required proof of citizenship. In February 2014, Kobach’s office said that it had been able to release about 7,700 of those registrations by working with the Kansas Office of Vital Statistics to check the registration list against Kansas birth certificate records. Even so, Kobach’s office reported that, as of Feb. 1, nearly 15,000 registrations remained “in suspense.”

In the four months since, county election officers have continued their efforts to contact people with pending registrations and obtain proof of citizenship. However, as of June 1, the Secretary of State’s office reported, the list of registrations in suspense was back up to 18,071.

Even in Douglas County, which appears to be making significant verification efforts, more than 600 would-be voters still are in suspense. County Clerk Jamie Shew said those voters have until Aug. 4 to provide that proof so they can vote in the Aug. 5 primary election, but there has been confusion among some voters who think they will be able to vote if they simply bring their citizenship documents to the poll on election day. Thousands of other Kansans may be in the same boat and will be disappointed when they show up at the polls with a birth certificate or just a driver’s license thinking that’s all they need.

Kobach doesn’t see this as a problem. Last fall, he acknowledged that more than 80 percent of the registrations that are in suspense were filed at driver’s license offices across the state. Those people, he said, “are mostly casual registrants, many of whom do not intend to vote.” Many Kansans who chose to take advantage of the convenience of registering when they got their driver’s licenses may be surprised to see their right to vote dismissed in such a cavalier manner.

More important, Kobach contends, is the need to ensure that no non-citizens cast ballots in Kansas elections. Is preventing up to 18,000 eligible Kansas voters from participating in the election an acceptable trade-off to prevent votes by no more than a handful of non-citizens who probably would have been identified and turned away by voter ID and other standard voting procedures? It would be one thing if the state had an adequate way to confirm citizenship without creating a huge backlog of incomplete registrations — but that obviously isn’t the case.

Less than two months from the August primary, most of the action concerning the state’s proof-of-citizenship law is centered in the courts, where Kobach continues to press his case. Perhaps his time would be better spent trying to get more people off the “in suspense” list rather that fighting to put more people on it.