Behind Clinton-Kobach feud lies serious proposal: automatic voter registration

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Kansas’ Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach got into a shouting-match-by-press-release this week over Kansas’ restrictive voting laws, and in particular the requirement Kobach championed for people to show proof of U.S. citizenship in order to vote.

Clinton’s campaign started it off Thursday — and didn’t make any friends among the Kansas press corps along the way — by sending an email statement to news desks all over the state slamming Kobach for having supported those laws.

And just to show how serious of an issue it is (as if to suggest we didn’t already know), she hyperlinked to a New York Times story reporting what every major Kansas media outlet has been reporting for months, if not years: that the proof of citizenship law has a disproportionate impact on young voters. Also in a move that could also be taken as a sign of disrespect, they didn’t even give us a statement from Clinton herself. It was from a senior policy adviser, Maya Harris.

“Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s full-court press to implement harsh voting restrictions and disenfranchisement efforts continue to deny Kansans their basic freedoms by making it more difficult for them to be active participants in our democracy,” Harris said.

If you know anything about Kobach, you know that’s just red meat for him.

“With mounting pressure from Democratic primary challenger Bernie Sanders, the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign has resorted to attacking Kansas election laws,” Kobach said.

“In Kansas we recognize that the problem of aliens registering and voting is a serious one,” he said. “We have already identified more than 30 aliens who either successfully registered before our law went into effect, or attempted to register (and were stopped) after the law went into effect.”

But lurking behind all the election-year rhetoric (even though it’s technically not an election year yet) lies a serious policy proposal that should be debated and discussed seriously: automatic registration.

Last week, California became the second state in the nation to pass a law that automatically registers qualified residents to vote when they apply for a driver’s license. Oregon enacted a similar law earlier this year. Instead of being asked to opt in to voter registration at the DMV, people in those states will be automatically registered, unless they check a box opting out.

In their statement Thursday, the Clinton campaign said she favors “universal, automatic voter registration and a new standard of no fewer than 20 days of early in-person voting in every state.”

In this regard, Kobach was right in saying Clinton was responding to pressure from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders because it was Sanders who introduced legislation in August, on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, to establish automatic registration nationwide. Similar legislation had been introduced earlier by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

In his response to the Clinton campaign, Kobach called that idea, “a federal takeover of the registration process (that) would result in millions of aliens automatically getting onto the voter rolls.”

In point of fact, the California law requires the DMV to send information to the Secretary of State’s office, which then must verify citizenship before adding those names to the voting rolls.

But in remarks he made on the Kansas University campus Oct. 8, Kobach raised other objections to a federal law for automatic registration.

“I’m opposed to automatic registration because there is a ton of slop on government lists,” he said. “You might think the government knows everything, the government knows who you are. Gosh, they can keep track of your taxes, right? Wrong. There is so much duplication on government lists, whether it’s the voter registration list, the driver’s license list, welfare lists. And the idea that these are all accurate, and that we’re not going to have people registered three, four, five times is just simply wrong. It presumes that our government has really done a great job of keeping track of who’s here, who’s not here, who’s deceased, who’s not deceased.”

Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University who studies elections, said automatic registration is common in European democracies, and he said it’s not surprising that it would pop up first on the West Coast, which is known for its more liberal political culture.

But he said those kinds of voting reforms are “slow to catch on in the rest of the country,” and he doesn’t think Kansas will jump on board with the idea anytime soon.

Unless, of course, there is a federal mandate to do so.