Civil rights panel weighing testimony on Kansas voting laws

Rep. Jim Ward, left, D-Wichita, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, give opposing testimony to a U.S. Civil Rights Commission advisory council about the impact of Kansas' photo ID and proof of citizenship voting laws, on Jan. 29, 2016.

? Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Democratic Rep. Jim Ward of Wichita offered sharply different accounts this week about how the state’s new, restrictive voting laws have affected voter participation in Kansas elections.

Kobach and Ward appeared together before the Kansas Advisory Commission to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

That group held a daylong hearing Thursday in Topeka, taking testimony from public officials, academic researchers and members of the public about how the SAFE Act has affected voter participation and whether it has had a disproportionate impact on certain groups on the basis of race, color, age, religion or disability.

“I think it’s been a success in terms of implementation. I think it’s been a success in terms of popularity with the electorate,” Kobach said, referring to the Kansas Secure and Fair Elections, or SAFE Act, passed in 2011, that now requires all voters to show a valid photo ID at the polls in order to vote and for new voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register.

“And I think statistically, it certainly has not had any negative impact on participation, and one could argue it has had a slight positive impact on participation,” he said.

But Ward, who has held elected office at the state and local level for most of the last 25 years, said he believes the laws have demonstrably prevented qualified citizens from voting.

Rep. Jim Ward, left, D-Wichita, and Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican, give opposing testimony to a U.S. Civil Rights Commission advisory council about the impact of Kansas' photo ID and proof of citizenship voting laws, on Jan. 29, 2016.

“In my last election, I registered 300 new voters,” Ward said. “I advance-balloted about 500 voters. It made the difference in my primary. It made the difference in my general election. It is harder to do that today than it has ever been, and I know that only because that’s what I do when I get elected.”

He also pointed to the number of voter registrations that have been blocked and held “in suspense” because the voters failed to provide the required proof of U.S. citizenship. That number stood at more than 30,000 in September, the last full count taken before Kobach implemented new regulations requiring those applications to be canceled if they’ve been held more than 90 days.

“When you have between 30,000 and 40,000 people being denied their right to vote, you cannot say with a straight face it’s not having an impact on elections and on participation,” Ward said.

Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University who has analyzed the list of suspense voters, testified that those voters tend to be clustered in lower-income neighborhoods. He also said the list included a disproportionate number of young voters.

Kobach pointed to a SurveyUSA poll conducted in 2010, before the laws were enacted, showing 85 percent of those surveyed supported requiring people to show a photo ID in order to vote, and 82 percent supported a proof of citizenship requirement to register.

But Ward challenged whether that poll asked the right questions.

“When you ask a question abut photo IDs on a survey, ‘Do you think it’s OK to (require) photo IDs?’ most people are going to say yes,” Ward said.

“When you present to them the fact that there are between 12 and 18 percent of the Kansas population that don’t have a driver’s license, that slows them down a little bit,” he said. “These people don’t have checking accounts. They don’t have credit cards. They don’t participate in our economy at that level yet. But they are still valid citizens. Their voice matters.”

Kobach also pointed to the fact that there are now more than 1.7 million registered voters in Kansas, the most the state has ever had. And he said there is little evidence to suggest that voter participation in 2014 — the first election in which both the photo ID and proof of citizenship laws were in effect — was substantially different from earlier, similar elections.

But he also said it’s difficult to pinpoint why voter turnout in any given election will be higher or lower than other elections.

“It’s really, really hard to isolate why a person decides to vote in any given election cycle,” he said. “You have so many factors. But anyone who studies elections will tell you, the number-one factor driving people to the polls is a good, competitive race where people care about the candidates.”

Even by that standard, though, participation in the 2014 election, a nonpresidential year in which statewide offices and a U.S. Senate seat were on the ballot — was down from the last similar election in 2002.

According to official election results and census figures for Kansas, 887,023 people cast ballots in 2014. That was 50.8 percent of all registered voters, and 40.6 percent of the total voting-age population. That election included highly competitive races for both governor and U.S. Senator.

Twelve years earlier, 851,966 Kansans voted in the general election. That was 52.7 percent of all registered voters and 44.6 percent of the voting-age population. That year saw an open race for governor, but a noncompetitive Senate race in which Republican Pat Roberts faced no major party opposition.

Ward argued that the photo ID and citizenship laws effectively make people prove they are innocent of a crime before they can exercise their right to vote.

“I come to the presumption that I should be able to participate, and if the government’s going to stop me, they have to have a good reason, that the majority should not be able to prevent me from participating in an election,” he said.

Elizabeth Kronk Warner, a Kansas University law professor who chairs the advisory commission, said the panel will use all of the testimony it received Thursday and make a report about its findings to the Civil Rights Commission later this year.