Voting rights advocates seek to rein in Kansas election laws

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach speaks during a news conference Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015, in Topeka.

? When Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach set out to make Kansas a national model for fighting voter fraud, he found conservative allies in the Legislature willing to enact some of the most restrictive election laws in the country.

The state passed laws requiring voters to show identification to vote and requiring people to provide documentary proof of U.S. citizenship to register. Lawmakers made Kobach the only secretary of state in the country with power to prosecute voter fraud. And they made violations of state election laws a felony.

But in the 2017 Kansas Legislature, with about two dozen new lawmakers elected in a moderate wave last fall, a backlash against the restrictive election laws may be brewing.

Democrats are expected to push to repeal the proof-of-citizen registration requirement, which Kobach is defending on several fronts in court. One bill seeks to allow same-day registration so people can register when they go to the polls to vote. Another bill seeks to remove Kobach’s prosecutorial power and make penalties for election law violations misdemeanors rather than felonies.

Among that wave of newly elected moderate lawmakers is state Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Republican from Lenexa. She said she heard concerns about voting rights from people in her district as she campaigned. She believes Kobach “pushes the boundaries” with his prosecutorial power. She also supports same-day registration to vote.

“The more people that have a voice, the better we are as a society,” Sykes said.

Not everyone agrees with pushing back against Kobach’s policies, most notably Rep. Keith Esau, the Republican from Olathe who chairs the House Elections Committee. Esau said he is happy with the way Kobach has been running things: “Elections are running smoothly, we had good turnouts.”

Kobach was back at the Legislature this past week seeking authority to bar potentially tens of thousands of people from voting in state and local races. He wants lawmakers to let him create separate voter registration lists – one for people who can vote in any election and another who can vote only in federal races. Those who register using a form provided by the federal government that does not require proof of citizenship would be on the second list.

“In Kansas we have made it easy to vote but hard to cheat,” Kobach said in an email.

The League of Women Voters disagrees. Co-president Marge Ahrens said there were about 21,000 Kansans as of last week on a “suspense list” for not completing voter registrations, mostly for not providing citizenship documentation.

“The barriers to the vote in Kansas are the highest of any state in the nation,” Ahrens said.

Those tensions are playing out against a backdrop of multiple court decisions that have gutted many of the voting restrictions Kobach championed. The session also comes in the wake of a general election in which 13,717 ballots statewide were thrown out — 10,148 of them discarded because the voter was not registered, the secretary of state’s office said Thursday.

While the reasons for that vary, Kobach was put on the defensive this week at legislative committee hearings after The Associated Press made public technical problems with the online and motor vehicle computer system that caused an unknown number of voters before the general election to receive confirmation they had successfully completed their voter registrations when in fact the system failed to record them.

The ACLU and a coalition of other groups plan to seek legislation that would allow voter registration up to election day. That is something about a dozen other states — including Republican-dominated ones like Wyoming, Utah and North Dakota — already have in place.

State Rep. John Carmichael, a Democrat from Wichita, is sponsoring a bill to repeal the secretary of state’s prosecutorial power, noting Kobach has filed just nine prosecutions against people for double voting in the past year and a half. Six voters were convicted and fined between $500 and $5,500. None involved noncitizens voting illegally.

Carmichael says Kobach is using his prosecutorial power for “political purposes,” saying Kobach has made a name for himself by contending noncitizens are stealing elections.

Kobach said he could bring more prosecutions if he had more attorneys, but said it is not necessary.

“We have sent a clear message to those who might seek to commit voter fraud — we will catch you, and if we prosecute, you will likely face a very heavy fine,” Kobach said. “That’s the very essence of deterrence.”