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Will Voting Problems Give Kansas An Election Night Limbo?

Peggy Lowe

Beth Hiller has been a member of the GOP since back when it really was the Grand Old Party, as her daughter says.

Hiller is 97-years-old, born and raised on a Kansas dairy farm, and a lifelong Republican. Her mother and father were Republican. Her husband, John Hiller, was the Shawnee County GOP chair, as well as the Kansas delegate to the U.S. Electoral College.

“Voting in our family was always a big deal,” said Cheryl Logan, Hiller’s daughter. “It was an event. We all hopped in the car, we got to the polling place and it was kind of a social event, too.”

Hiller has been voting since she was 20, she said, and in those 77 years, she’s never been denied a vote. That is, until Aug. 5, 2014.

During this year’s primary election, Hiller and several other seniors were turned away at a polling place at Brewster Place, the retirement home in Topeka where they live, because they supposedly didn’t have the proper ID. Hiller was shocked.

“We live in the United States. That this is kind of the thing that we all are proud of,” Hiller said. “You’re disappointed that anything like that would happen.”

Hiller was tripped up by one of the provisions in Kansas’ strict new voting law, which requires identification. It was championed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who dubbed it the “Secure and Fair Elections Law.”

The seniors were wrongly turned away at the polling place because the worker said the copies of the IDs didn’t fit in a card scanner. Hiller’s original ID was with her granddaughter, who was not nearby.

Hiller should have been offered a provisional ballot, as the law requires, but was not.

Those ballots are cast when there are registration questions that can be checked out and counted later, if it’s found valid.

An even larger group than those who have had ID problems at the polls are those voters who haven’t yet proven U.S. citizenship, another provision of the new law. There are 22,468 voters whose registrations are suspended because they are lacking citizenship documentation, according to the Secretary of State’s office. That’s larger than the population of Prairie Village, a Kansas City suburb.

“This is a big change for Kansas. In 2010, we only rejected .03 percent of voter registration applications,” said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas assistant political science professor. “Whereas in 2014, we’ve suspended or rejected almost 20 percent. That’s a massive increase.”

Of the nearly 22,468 suspended registrations, 18 percent are Democrats, nearly 23 percent are Republicans and a whopping 57 percent are independents, or unaffiliated. The new law has effectively made the electorate more partisan, Miller said.

“It’s filtering out independents, the swing voters, making proportionately the electorate more Democratic, more Republican,” Miller said. “In Kansas, the effect of this is essentially making the electorate more Republican, given that Republicans have a registration advantage here.”

The suspended registrations have become an issue in Kobach’s reelection, criticized by his challenger, Jean Schodorf, who accused him of lying about the law to get it passed. Kobach has acknowledged the problems, but said there are easy fixes and that his office has helped thousands of people with their registrations.

The law is working because it has already caught more than a dozen “aliens,” Kobach said.

“Look, we are country of laws and it is possible for every single person who is a U.S. citizen to vote in Kansas,” Kobach said during a debate on KCUR’s Up To Date.“I think it’s really irresponsible to suggest that citizens are being denied the right to vote.”

Critics of Kobach’s law have suggested that it would marginalize minorities and young people. A recent study by the GAO, a non-partisan Congressional watchdog group, proves that out, saying the Kansas law has depressed voter turnout.

But what is still unknown is if this law will affect super-competitive races, like the two largest in Kansas this year. The race between GOP Gov. Sam Brownback and Democrat Paul Davis and Independent Greg Orman’s challenge of Republican incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts are both at statistical dead heats.

Chapman Rackaway, a political science professor at Fort Hays State University, has studied the law. He says some of the Kansas races may be determined by a percentage point – or less. That means there could be recounts or other delays.

“It could end up being in limbo at the conclusion of election night,” he said. “We may not have resolution on Tuesday. We could have our own little Bush-versus-Gore-style donnybrook.”

In addition to the extra attention Kansas will get on Tuesday because of the tight races – and the fact that the Roberts-Orman race could help determine the U.S. Senate majority – other eyes will also be focused here. U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom announced this week that a federal prosecutor will be on duty Election Day to respond promptly to complaints of possible election fraud and voting rights violations in Kansas.

Hiller’s problems were ultimately squared away, Logan said, the local election commissioner apologized for the problem and the poll worker was fired.  As for this coming Tuesday, Hiller said her son recently asked her if she’d be voting.

“I told him well, I just didn’t know for sure whether if I would get out of bed and go vote but that I would certainly try, because I’ve pretty much done that forever,” she said.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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