Kobach seeks authority for bifurcated elections; downplays issue of missing registrations

Secretary of State Kris Kobach, right, and Bryan Caskey, deputy secretary for elections, listen during a meeting of the Senate Ethics, Elections and Local Govenment Committee.

TOPEKA — Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach asked for a bill to be introduced Tuesday that would give him authority to hold “bifurcated” elections so that potentially tens of thousands of registered voters could not vote in state or local elections.

It would apply to people who register to vote using a federal process that does not require people to show proof of citizenship, ensuring that they could only vote in federal elections, not state or local elections.

“It’s sort of an interim bill during litigation to keep the integrity of the (proof of citizenship) law while it’s being litigated,” Kobach told the Senate Committee on Ethics, Elections and Local Government.

The bill comes in response to a string of state and federal court rulings leading up to the 2016 elections that all but nullified the proof of citizenship law that he championed in 2011.

First, a federal judge in Kansas City, Kan., granted a temporary injunction partially blocking the state from enforcing the law. The court said Kansas could not use its citizenship requirement to block people from voting in federal elections, and that ruling was eventually upheld by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver.

Those federal forms currently only require applicants to attest, under penalty of perjury, that they are U.S. citizens, but they do not require people to show documentary proof of citizenship.

In response, Kobach attempted to enact a new regulation that would have required those people to cast provisional ballots so that only their votes in federal races would be counted. But the American Civil Liberties Union challenged that in state court, and in September a Shawnee County District Court judge said Kobach had no statutory authority to hold such a “bifurcated” election in which there would essentially have to be two separate voter registration lists: one for people who can vote in all elections and another for people who could only vote in federal races.

Kobach has appealed the Shawnee County decision to the Kansas Court of Appeals. In addition, the federal court in Kansas City, Kan., has not yet issued a final ruling in a set of cases that say the citizenship law conflicts with federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

So, while those cases are still being litigated, Kobach has asked for legislation to grant him specific authority to hold bifurcated elections.

“This bill clarifies that for state elections, you have to prove your citizenship under Kansas law in this interim period where the case is in court,” Kobach said in a separate telephone interview Tuesday.

Kobach’s bill may be just one of several opportunities lawmakers have this year to discuss the proof of citizenship law. Democrats in the Legislature have said they plan to offer measures, either as a separate bill or an amendment onto another election bill, to repeal the citizenship requirement altogether.

Downplaying ‘lost’ registrations

Also Tuesday, Kobach downplayed the significance of news reports over the weekend that “thousands” of ballots were thrown out during the 2016 elections, including many from people who said they had successfully registered using the state’s online registration system.

That story was first reported by The Associated Press and was carried in several Kansas news outlets, including the Lawrence Journal-World. It noted that a potentially large number of people registered using the state’s online system and received confirmation that their registrations were successful, only to find out at the polls that the registrations had not gone through. The problem was attributed to a “glitch” in a web-based system that communicates between the secretary of state’s office and the Division of Vehicles in the Department of Revenue.

Kobach told reporters Tuesday that only a small percentage of the provisional ballots that were thrown out during the November elections were related to that computer glitch.

“The thousands of ballots thrown out had to do with provisional ballots, and every year thousands of provisional ballots are cast, and about 30 percent of those thousands are thrown out because the person does not legally qualify to cast a vote,” Kobach said. “The tiny, smaller issue within the article was, of course, what you’re now referring to, and that is the computer glitch, if you will, that the (Division of Vehicles) had.”

Kobach said the problem was that if the Division of Vehicles’ server went down while someone was in the process of using it, the user would get a message saying the registration was complete, but the computer system would not record it and relay the information back to the secretary of state’s office.

Bryan Caskey, who heads the Elections Division in the secretary of state’s office, said he didn’t know exactly how many voters had been affected, but he described it as, “more than a handful and less than several hundred.”

Officials at the Department of Revenue declined to comment on the situation “because of pending litigation.”

Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, however, said he wasn’t satisfied with that answer.

“It has been stated that if one person votes illegally, it hurts the election,” Shew said, referring to Kobach’s own justification for strict photo ID and proof of citizenship laws that he says are intended to prevent noncitizens from voting. “This is a frustration we’ve been dealing with for quite some time.”

Shew said his office began tracking cases of voters who claimed to have registered online because there have been a growing number of them over the last few election cycles.

Shew said that in Douglas County alone in November, there were 148 provisional ballots cast by people who said they had registered online, but whose registrations were not recorded in the poll books. Of those, he said, 56 were eventually counted, either because officials were able to find a record of the registration or the person had a confirmation receipt or a screenshot of the computer screen showing they had registered successfully. But the other 92 provisional ballots from that group were not counted, he said, because officials could not find a record of their registration and they did not have a confirmation receipt or screenshot showing they’d completed the process.

“It is extremely frustrating as an administrator of an election when you have someone standing there with a receipt saying they’re duly registered, but they’re not showing up in the poll books,” he said. “That system’s not working.”