Thousands of people in Kansas have incomplete voter registrations, which means they haven’t been able to vote. They were caught up in the state’s requirement that some people provide citizenship documents when registering. Now, a federal appeals court says many of those people should be allowed to vote in federal elections.
Republican Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has pushed for the more stringent voter registration rules to ensure security in elections, but voter advocacy groups say the cost has been too high.
A few years ago, people didn’t need as much to register to vote. Now, people registering for the first time in Kansas need a document like a birth certificate or passport to prove their citizenship.
Bernadette Forge, with the League of Women Voters in Topeka, recently brought scanners and iPads to a voter registration event at a naturalization ceremony where 200 people became U.S. citizens. They’ll have freshly minted documents in hand, ready to copy.
“We’re trying to get away from feeling upset about the proof of citizenship, and try to just look at, 'Here’s what has to get done now,'” Forge says.
But the process hasn’t been so simple for people like Tad Stricker. He moved to Kansas and registered to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles before the 2014 election.
“I walked in to cast my ballot,” Stricker says, “and I can’t tell you what a shocker it was to find out my vote wasn’t going to be counted.”
Stricker thought he had done everything he needed, but his registration was incomplete because it didn’t include a document proving his citizenship. He is now a party in a lawsuit over the rules.
“I had this barrier put up that I just feel was very unjust,” Stricker says.
Marge Ahrens, the co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, says actual voter fraud cases are rare. She says that in the name of security, Secretary of State Kobach’s policies are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
“He has taken away the rights of, for sure, 20,000 people to vote,” Ahrens says. “It’s a terrible trade. It’s a loss of the most important privilege in a democracy to thousands of Kansas citizens.”
For his part, Kobach says voting crimes where non-citizens vote are real and documented.
“The League of Women Voters is deceptive with their words when they say that people are being disenfranchised or blocked,” he says.
Kobach says requiring people to go home and get a citizenship document is worth it because illegal votes cancel the votes of Kansas citizens, possibly turning the results of a close election.
“And that’s real disenfranchisement, not the fake disenfranchisement that the League of Women Voters complains about when they say someone is temporarily on a suspense list for a week while they get their birth certificate," he says.
In fact, Kobach says 95 percent of people who register to vote complete the process. He says he believes the law will survive legal fights, and Kansas is leading on the issue.
With a primary and general election coming up, what could be the impact of thousands of voter registrations that are incomplete?
“If this law kept even a handful of people from voting in a hotly contested House race, that could be the difference in that race,” says Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.
While it’s possible the voting rules could swing an election, Miller calls it highly unlikely because of the types of people on the list. He says many of them are younger people or are more mobile.
“Disproportionately, we’re talking about a group of people who tend to register in the moment without a huge intention to actually following through with the documentation, let alone vote.”
Right now, the voter registration rules in Kansas are up in the air. A court says people who registered at the DMV and are suspended should be allowed to vote, at least in federal elections. Secretary Kobach has ordered county elections officials to comply with that ruling and begin registering thousands of suspended voters, but there's still some uncertainty on the ultimate outcome. A federal appeals court will consider the issue in August.