Thousands of U.S. voters in limbo after
Kansas toughens election law
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[June 01, 2016]
By John Whitesides
WICHITA, Kansas (Reuters) - After moving
to Kansas, Tad Stricker visited a state motor vehicle office to perform
what he thought was the routine task of getting a new driver's license
and registering to vote.
It was a familiar procedure for Stricker, 37, who has moved from
state to state frequently in his work as a hotel manager. He filled
out a voter registration form and got his driver's license. He was
not asked for more documents, he said.
So he was stunned when he tried to cast a ballot in November 2014
and was told he was not on the voter rolls. A month later, a letter
from the state said why: His registration had been placed "in
suspense" because he had failed to meet a state requirement he did
not know about - proving he was an American.
Spurred by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a national leader in
pushing for anti-immigration and voting changes, more than 36,000
Kansas residents have joined Stricker in limbo since early 2013
under a state law that raises a new and higher barrier to voting in
the United States: proof of citizenship.
While you must be a U.S. citizen to vote in American elections, most
states allow those wishing to register to simply sign a statement
affirming they are citizens and provide a driverís license number,
Social Security number, or other proof of residency.
A Reuters analysis of the Kansas suspense list shows the law
disproportionately hits young voters, who often do not have ready
access to the needed documents, as well as unaffiliated and
Democratic voters in the Republican-controlled state.
"What a shock," said Stricker, who was born in Missouri and moved to
Kansas with his wife from Illinois. "I was under the impression I
had registered to vote, I had done everything I needed to. I just
thought, 'This can't be happening.'"
While the law won't affect its status as a safe Republican state in
November's presidential election, it thrusts Kansas into a national
debate over voting restrictions that has accelerated since the
Supreme Court struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, a
signature legislative achievement of the 1960s civil rights
Kobach's involvement has raised the stakes in the fight against the
Kansas law. Democrats and voting rights advocates say his influence
with conservatives could help spread the concept to other states.
His critics scored a victory on May 17 when a federal judge weakened
the law. Kobach quickly appealed.
Photo identification laws and other voting measures have
proliferated in recent years in Republican-held states, but "the one
that gets me most nervous" is the proof of citizenship requirement
in Kansas, said Pratt Wiley, director of voter expansion for the
Democratic National Committee.
"What you will see is that what is learned in one state, or doesn't
work in one state, there is a small adjustment and then itís applied
in a different state," Wiley said, calling Kansas "patient zero" in
Kobach has gained a national reputation for pushing a series of
voting and anti-immigration measures across the country, leading one
Democratic congressman to dub him "the dark lord" of the
anti-immigration movement - a label he wears proudly.
'MOVING THE BALL'
"I don't know if I would call it a badge of honor but it reflects
that I'm moving the ball in what I think is the right direction,"
Kobach said in an interview in his Topeka office across from the
Three other states have adopted proof of citizenship laws championed
by Kobach, although officials said two of them had not implemented
them. Bills have been introduced in at least nine other states to
create a similar law since 2012, although none have advanced very
far, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The law Kobach spearheaded in Kansas requires registrants to prove
their citizenship by providing one of a series of documents,
including birth certificates and passports. They are placed on the
suspense list if they can't.
Since late last year, those who did not complete the requirements
for registration have been purged from the voter rolls after 90 days
and had to begin the process over again.
About 14 percent of Kansans who tried to register between the law's
onset in 2013 and late 2015 failed to meet the requirement and went
on the suspense list, according to documents filed in a lawsuit
challenging the requirement.
"It's created a system that is needlessly complex and very
discouraging, particularly for young people," said Steve Lopes, head
of the Johnson County Voting Coalition, which helps register voters.
"Now people just say, 'Forget it, I'm not going to vote'."
Kobach rejects accusations the law is designed to suppress voter
turnout, particularly among minority and low-income voters who tend
to back Democrats. He says it is aimed at stopping what he describes
as a rampant problem of non-citizens voting in U.S. elections - even
though there is little evidence of the problem.
[to top of second column]
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach talks about the Kansas voter
ID law that he pushed to combat what he believes to be rampant voter
fraud in the United States in his Topeka, Kansas, U.S., office May
12, 2016. REUTERS/Dave Kaup
"Every time an alien votes, it cancels out the vote of a U.S.
citizen. That's real disenfranchisement, it's happening every
election and it's happening in every state," Kobach said, estimating
thousands of non-citizens are on voting rolls in big states with
large immigrant populations.
Citing that threat, Kobach convinced the Kansas legislature in 2015
to give him the power to prosecute voter fraud. But he has won just
four misdemeanor illegal voting convictions, mostly involving people
who owned at least two properties and cast votes in both locations.
None involved non-citizens voting, although Kobach said more
complaints will be filed.
U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson, who issued a May 17 order
that Kansas begin to register more than 18,000 voters kept off the
rolls by the proof of citizenship law, noted Kansas could identify
only three non-citizens who voted between 2003 and the onset of the
law in 2013.
RISK OF DISENFRANCHISEMENT
"The court cannot find that the state's interest in preventing
non-citizens from voting in Kansas outweighs the risk of
disenfranchising thousands of qualified voters," she wrote.
Of the 16,775 people on a late-April suspense list obtained by
Reuters, more than half were ages 17 through 21, and more than 60
percent were age 25 or under. They were clustered in the
high-population areas of Wichita, Topeka and the Kansas City
suburbs, and the college towns of Lawrence and Manhattan.
About 41 percent were unaffiliated, more than the approximately 30
percent of registered Kansas voters who are unaffiliated. About 35
percent of those on the list were Democrats, compared to 24 percent
of registered voters. Twenty-three percent were Republicans,
compared to 45 percent of registered voters, according to a Reuters
analysis of the data.
Younger voters, who are more likely to register as unaffiliated or
Democrats, have a harder time getting the documents needed and have
less patience with what has become an unwieldy process, said Michael
Smith, a professor at Emporia State University who has studied the
Kansas suspense list.
Kobach said it was "natural" that young people were heavily
represented on the suspense list because they are the majority of
new registrants. He rejected criticism that a proof of citizenship
requirement created a higher barrier for registrants.
"If you define a barrier to voting as just having to do something
before you vote, every state has that barrier, virtually every state
requires proof of address," he said.
In her court ruling, Robinson said the Kansas requirement conflicted
with a federal law designed to make it easier to register while
getting a driver's license. She ordered Kansas on June 14 to begin
registering Stricker and other residents who had submitted voter
applications through state motor vehicle offices but failed to
provide proof of citizenship.
They will be able to vote in federal elections for the presidency
and U.S. Congress.
But Robinson's ruling did not end the proof of citizenship
requirement for Kansans who register by mail or at locations other
than motor vehicle offices, and it left even those registering while
getting a driver's license ineligible to vote for state and local
For now, that has created a chaotic two-tier system where some
Kansans can vote in state elections and some cannot, some need to
provide proof of citizenship and others do not, and many county
election officials are uncertain how to proceed.
"It's a complete mess," said Marge Ahrens, co-president of the
nonpartisan Kansas League of Women Voters.
(Additional reporting by Grant Smith in New York; Editing by Jason
Szep and Ross Colvin)
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