Kobach criticized at hearing over plan to purge Kansas voter rolls

ACLU of Kansas legal director Doug Bonney speaks, Wednesday morning, Sept. 2, 2015, during a hearing on Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s proposed change to voter registration rules. Bonney spoke out against the proposed changes. The rule would require county election officials to cancel incomplete registrations after 90 days. About 36,000 registrations are now incomplete. Most are because prospective votes have failed to document their U.S. citizenship.

? Voting rights advocates spoke out Wednesday against a proposal by Secretary of State Kris Kobach to enact new regulations that would allow the state to purge more than 36,000 voter registration applications currently being held in suspense, most for failure to show proof of U.S. citizenship.

The law requiring proof of citizenship for new voters to register took effect in January 2013. Kobach has argued that the proposed regulation is necessary to relieve county election officials of the job of continuing to try to contact voters who have not yet completed their applications.

The proposed administrative rule would require election officers to cancel incomplete applications after 90 days.

Marge Aherns, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, reads a statement opposing Secretary of State Kris Kobach's proposal to purge more than 36,000 incomplete voter registrations currently being held in suspense, most for failing to show proof of U.S. citizenship.

The Rev. Ben Scott, president of the Topeka branch of the NAACP, argued that voting is a right, not a privilege, and the secretary of state’s office should focus on trying to help people register rather than putting up impediments.

“I can remember back in the 1960s and a little before, there were lives that were taken for this particular right,” Scott said. “Those lives will never be given back to us, but one of the things I thought we as Americans would always have is this right to vote. They died for that.”

The proposed rule recently drew criticism from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose campaign tweeted that it was “a targeted attack on voting rights.” Kobach responded on Facebook that the rule was being criticized by “left-wing knuckleheads” and Clinton “is getting her pantsuit in a twist over nothing.”

The attorney general’s office and Department of Administration have approved the rule, but Kobach is required by law to have a public hearing and consider possible changes. His office said it has received more than 400 written comments. Kobach did not attend the hearing and had his elections chief preside.

Marge Aherns, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said that organization opposes the proof-of-citizenship law in its entirety, and she said the 90-day limit would impose a burden on many people who need more time to gather their documents.

“We know an out-of-state birth certificate can be costly or time-consuming to obtain,” she said. “Online ordering of documents presumes knowledge of computer access, methods of payment and receipt of mail documents.”

Two people spoke out in favor of the proposal.

Andrew Howell, a former Republican state legislator from Fort Scott whom Kobach appointed as Shawnee County Election Commissioner, said it is costly for his office to continue trying to contact would-be voters long after they initially applied for voter registration.

“Frankly, we do get phone calls from a number of people who say, ‘We really don’t wish to be contacted by you, we never intended to sign up as a voter in the first place,'” Howell said. “Frankly, sometimes those people get angry at us.”

And Jack Sossoman, a Shawnee County resident, said he supports requiring proof of citizenship.

“Yes, people do have a right to vote. But that right is qualified,” he said. “It’s qualified on U.S. citizenship, and the U.S. Constitution says that, that you have to be a citizen of the United States of America to vote.”

But Doug Bonney, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, questioned whether Kobach has the authority to enact such a regulation.

“This statute (that Kobach cites as authority) allows the secretary of state to adopt rules and regulations that implement the statute,” Bonney said. “There is in Kansas law no statutory basis for the 90-day limitation period.”

Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, said he and other researchers have analyzed the list of registrations that were being held in suspense as of last fall and found that 16 percent of them were able to complete their registrations within eight months, much longer than the 90 days that would be allowed under Kobach’s proposed rules.

Brian Caskey, director of elections in the secretary of state’s office, said Kobach would consider the public comments before issuing a final regulation. He said that could involve amending the proposed regulation or enacting them as proposed.

Kobach said later Wednesday that he hoped the comments would be reviewed in a few weeks, so that the rule can take effect Oct. 2.

After Wednesday’s hearing, the Kansas Democratic Party executive director, Kerry Gooch, criticized Kobach’s priorities.

“If Kris Kobach spent half as much time and energy helping Kansans register to vote as he does attempting to block Kansas citizens from voting, every eligible Kansan would be registered,” Gooch said in a news release, adding that he was disappointed that Kobach was not at the hearing. “If Secretary Kobach wants to take radical action that disenfranchises thousands of Kansas voters, he should at least have the courage and decency to show up to his own public hearing.”

–The Associated Press contributed to this story.