Editorial: Voter hammer

Secretary of State Kris Kobach says his office will begin almost immediately to enforce new, tougher voter fraud laws that are on their way to the governor’s desk.

A bill that takes away local control of voter fraud prosecutions and allows people who violate state voting laws out of confusion or a simple misunderstanding to be convicted of a felony and sentenced to jail is now on its way to Gov. Sam Brownback’s desk.

The measure, which already had been approved by the Senate, passed the House on a narrow 67-55 vote on Thursday.

A key provision of the bill would give the Kansas secretary of state authority to prosecute voter fraud cases, something that has been advocated by Secretary of State Kris Kobach for several years. The power to prosecute those cases now lies with county and district attorneys. The new law would allow voter fraud cases to be prosecuted by local prosecutors, the secretary of state or the Kansas attorney general, meaning that a case that a local prosecutor decided shouldn’t be pursued still could be taken up by one of the state officials.

Giving that power to the state attorney general could make some sense, but giving it to the secretary of state is a highly questionable and unusual move. While it’s appropriate for the secretary of state’s office to identify alleged cases of voter fraud, the decision whether to pursue those cases should be up to the state and local prosecutors who have been elected specifically to make such decisions. Giving prosecutorial power to the secretary of state also suggests that office will have to maintain additional legal staff — at additional taxpayer expense — to pursue those prosecutions.

Other provisions of this bill lower the standard of proof and raise the penalties for various voting infractions. A prosecutor would have to show only that a person knew he or she was committing a certain action — such as voting at a polling place or returning a mail ballot — but wouldn’t have to show that person knew he or she was committing an illegal act — such as casting a ballot at the wrong polling place or returning a mail ballot after moving to another state. Opponents of the bill say an act as simple as attempting to vote at the wrong polling place or without being properly registered could be prosecuted.

The bill also makes voting infractions that currently are misdemeanor crimes into Class 7, 8 or 9 nonperson felonies. People with no previous convictions who are convicted of those felonies likely would be eligible for parole, but they also could be subject to jail terms ranging from six months to a year. Having a felony conviction on their record also could affect their ability to get a job or qualify to participate in certain federal and state programs.

Opponents of this legislation have raised concerns that some Kansans will be deterred from attempting to vote out of fear that they might unknowingly commit and be prosecuted for some illegal action.

Intentional, malicious voter fraud is a serious matter that warrants prosecution, but this law could set the stage for overly zealous and harsh prosecution and penalties for what many Kansans think is a relatively small problem in the state.