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Thousands Of Kansans In Voter Limbo As Fight Rages Over Proof-Of-Citizenship Law

Frank Morris

In Kansas, you have to show proof that you are a U.S. citizen to register to vote, and that requirement has held up tens of thousands of registrations and produced an enormous list of would-be voters who are essentially in limbo — all because they haven’t shown a birth certificate or passport. 

Now Kansas’ top elections official in Kansas wants that list purged, and that’s leading to a fight. 

Like a lot of people, Cody Keener registered to vote for the first time at the Division of Motor Vehicles. Keener is 21 and comes from a long line of Kansans. So he figured he was set to both drive and vote, but he was wrong. He recently learned that his registration is incomplete because he hasn’t shown proof that he’s a U.S. citizen. 

“It’s very discouraging to young people,” says Keener. “I’m a full-time student, I work anywhere from 20 to 30 hours a week.” 

Keener says that digging up documentation to complete the registration will be a hassle. To make matters worse, his wife is also on the state’s list of suspended voters, along with more than 36,000 other people — a group that would just about fill major a league baseball stadium.

“And when you have that many people who didn’t finish their registrations, you know something is the matter with the law,” says Marge Ahrens, co-president of the League of Woman Voters of Kansas. “It’s a sign of failure.”

Ahrens says the list has exploded since 2013, when the state started requiring proof of citizenship. It’s ballooned into by far the largest list of its type, according to the ACLU. One reason is that unlike Arizona and Georgia — the two other states that currently require proof of citizenship to vote — Kansas has never imposed a time limit on completing a voter registration.

“Looking at the other states, we realized that we should have had this time limit in the first place,” says Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

Kobach presents himself as kind of elections lawman, guarding the political process from people bent on hijacking it.

“There is a problem with aliens getting on our voter rolls,” claims Kobach. “And every time you have a close election, there is a significant possibility that a handful of votes cast by non-citizens may have swung the election."

Kobach claims the state’s elections are now the most secure in the nation, that its proof of citizenship law is a model for the nation. But, Ahrens says it’s more of a model for how to discourage voting.

“It has intimidated the public about the vote,” says Ahrens. “It has essentially kept 36,000 off the vote, it’s adding new people every day.”

But while the proof of citizenship requirement does add new names to the state’s suspension list, the list is actually shrinking. That is mainly because of a change of policy Kobach instituted, allowing elections officials to delete incomplete registrations 90 days after they are first filed. That work is going on in 105 separate county election’s offices, like the one Bruce Newby runs on State Ave, in Kansas City, Kansas.

Credit Frank Morris / KCUR
Wyandotte County Election Commissioner, Bruce Newby, like other county elections officials, exercises a lot of discretion over how to implement Kobach's 90 day rule

But instead of registering voters, these days, the voter registration staff is busy mailing out letters, warning people with incomplete voter registrations, that their applications are about to be canceled.

Wyandotte County has about 1,200 people on the voter suspense list, and Newby says they will have tried to contact each one, several times, by the time the county deletes their application.

“There is nobody that’s going to be canceled, until such time as I’m satisfied that we’ve done our due diligence,” states Newby. 

County elections officials have a lot of leeway in how they treat suspended voters. In Douglas County, for instance, they’re not going to start clearing names until the first of next year, 90 days after the new rule took effect. Kobach says there’s no need to approach this so gingerly.

“This is not an undue burden on anyone, this 90 day rule,” says Kobach. “Giving a person three months to prove up their citizenship after starting the process.  And if a person still doesn’t do it within 90 days they still have a chance to just fill out the card all over again and give themselves another 90 days,” Kobach says.

But deleting the voter registration applications raises legal issues. 

“This is where there is a collision between state law and federal law,” says Paul Davis, a Lawrence attorney representing Cody Keener in a lawsuit challenging the 90 day rule, and the proof of citizenship requirement.

Davis, who ran for governor as a Democrat last year, asserts that voter registrations at the DMV are protected.

“Because under the National Voter Registration Act, those voters like Cody Keener are federal voters, and they cannot be removed from the voter list,” argues Davis.

But with appeals almost certain after this round of litigation is done, whether or not people who register at the DMV in Kansas without showing proof of citizenship are “federal voters,” or Kansas voters, or just not voters at all, may not be settled before next year’s elections.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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