Editorial: Voting chaos

The current uncertainty about Kansas voter registration laws confuses voters and discourages participation in the democratic process.

A recent decision by the new executive director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission once again has put Kansas voting laws in the spotlight.

Whether residents Kansas and a few other states could circumvent a state proof-of-citizenship requirement by using a federal voter registration form had been the subject of considerable debate in recent years. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach had tried to force the EAC to change the federal form, which requires applicants to swear they are citizens, to conform to Kansas law, which requires registrants to provide documents to prove their citizenship.

When the courts ruled that states can’t force people registering with the federal form to show proof of citizenship, Kobach began operating a dual election system in Kansas. That system allowed voters registered with the federal form to cast provisional ballots but allowed their votes to be counted only in federal races for president and Congress. After a Shawnee County District Court judge ruled last month that Kobach had no authority to operate a two-tiered voting system, it appeared that voters could fully register with federal forms and bypass the state law.

That is, until EAC executive director Brian Newby stepped onto the scene.

Interestingly, before Newby was hired as executive director of the EAC, he had worked for 11 years as the Johnson County election commissioner. Kobach had reappointed Newby in 2014, praising him as “a source of innovation and improvement in Kansas elections for the past decade.” Newby started his new job in November. On Nov. 17, Kobach’s office sent a letter asking the EAC to add a proof-of-citizenship requirement to the federal registration forms used in Kansas. On Jan. 29, despite the court rulings and without consulting with the appointed members of the EAC, Newby granted that request.

So, yet another element of confusion and controversy has been injected into the Kansas election system. The courts say people using the federal form don’t have to present proof of citizenship, but the head of the EAC says that, if they live in Kansas, they do. Newby said his action was within his authority, but at least one EAC commissioner says it wasn’t. If the EAC decision is reversed, will Kansas voters be able to fully register using the federal form, thereby undermining the state’s proof-of-citizenship law? If the EAC decision stands, a dual election system would seem unnecessary, but what happens to Kansas voters who already have registered with the federal form?

With Kansas primaries only about six months away, the state needs to get these questions resolved in a manner that conforms with federal law and facilitates registration of qualified voters. The current chaos in Kansas registration laws is both a deterrent to voter participation and a disservice to the state.