Minority groups push for same-day voter registration

A voter heads to a polling precinct at Central United Methodist Church before noon Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.

? Minority leaders in Kansas and other voting rights advocates are pushing for passage of a bill this year that they say would dramatically increase voter turnout by allowing people to register to vote on Election Day and still have their vote counted.

“Same-day registration” is already allowed in 10 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and Hawaii will become the 11th state in 2018.

“We really believe everybody should have access to voting anytime, not just a few days out of the year. As long as they come with ID, why shouldn’t they be able to vote?” said Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, who recently introduced a same-day registration bill in the House.

Rep. Gail Finney, D-Wichita, is sponsoring a same-day voter registration bill that would allow people to register to vote on Election Day. Supporters argue that it would increase voter turnout, especially among young and minority voters. But some skeptics fear it could open the door to widespread voting fraud.

That idea was among the top priorities listed for the 2016 session when the Kansas Black Leadership Council held its statewide convention in Topeka in November.

Under current Kansas law, voters must be registered at least 21 days before an election.

Finney’s bill would change that by allowing voters to go to their county election office or any advance voting satellite office within 20 days before an election, or to their local polling place on Election Day, and cast a ballot at the same time they register.

Those ballots would be held separate and would not be counted until the county election officers verify that the information submitted is accurate, and that the voter has not already cast a ballot in the same election anywhere else.

Those voters also would still have to comply with state laws requiring a photo ID and proof of U.S. citizenship.

“We’re asking people, bring it that day. Still have your ID, bring your birth certificate. Be prepared,” Finney said. “Even with that, it would at least give them an opportunity to vote.”

But it’s likely to face an uphill battle in the Kansas Legislature, which in recent years has passed more restrictive voting laws, including the photo ID and proof of citizenship requirements.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who championed passage of those laws in 2011, said he had not seen the language of Finney’s bill. But he said he is generally skeptical of same-day registration as a matter of policy.

“It creates a huge problem of people voting multiple times in the same election because our polling places are not connected electronically,” he said. “So I could register at polling place one, vote; show my same identification at polling place two across town, vote; and go to polling place three, four, five and six. It will be discovered after the fact, after the election that I voted multiple times, but my multiple votes will be cast and there’s no way to pull my votes out of the ballot box once they’re cast.”

Rep. Mark Kahrs, R-Wichita, who chairs the House Elections Committee where the bill will likely be referred, said he also had not yet seen the bill, but expressed many of the same general reservations as Kobach.

“We don’t know who these people are. We don’t know if they’re citizens. We don’t know where they live. It’s just ripe for fraud and abuse, and I don’t support it at all,” he said.

Kahrs did, however, say he would allow the committee to hold hearings on the bill, if the concerns about ID and verification could be worked out.

Finney and other supporters of the bill say they believe the bill addresses the concern about fraud by providing that the ballots won’t be counted until after election officials verify that the voter’s information is accurate and that the voter has not voted at multiple locations.

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said he thinks same-day registration would be especially helpful in university towns like Lawrence where a large segment of the population, particularly younger voters, move frequently and forget to update their voter registration.

“The biggest barrier to voting really is the registration deadline,” Shew said. “If you’re leaving one state and coming to another state, and you miss the deadline there but you also miss the deadline here, you don’t get to vote. And the largest group that that impacts is 18- to 24-year-olds.”

Mark Joslyn, a political science professor at Kansas University who studies voting behavior, said studies have shown same-day registration significantly increases voter participation, particularly among younger voters and other groups that typically have low voter turnout.

“Often voters who would make up their minds toward the end, or who aren’t even paying attention until toward the very end would benefit from this,” he said. “Those who are typically outside the process.”

Rep. Finney wouldn’t speculate on the chances of the bill passing the Legislature this year, although she acknowledged it will be a challenge.

“We need to be encouraging voting,” she said. “And as a legislator, part of my job, and part of the community’s job, is to keep encouraging this type of democracy.”