By Zenitha Prince
Special to the NNPA from the Afro-American Newspaper
Kris Kobach is a man on a mission.
Mere days after being sworn in as Kansas’ 31st secretary of state on Jan. 10, 2011, the co-architect of Arizona’s divisive and much-disputed anti-illegal immigration law, SB 1070, introduced a law to combat what he saw as unchecked voter fraud, particularly by non-U.S. citizens.
The Secure and Fair Elections (SAFE) Act, he touted, would make it “easy to vote but hard to cheat.”
Among other things, the law required Kansas voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polling place as of July 2012 and that new voters provide proof of U.S. citizenship before they could be registered, beginning January 2013.
“Election crimes have been documented across the state of Kansas, but very little has been done to rectify the situation,” said Kobach in a statement at the time. “The time has come to secure the integrity of Kansas elections.”
But critics, and even some who supported the legislation, say it has not lived up to its promise of easy access to the ballot box and has, instead, put roadblocks in the way of eligible voters.
“Kris Kobach testified before the Kansas Legislature, promising that people wouldn’t even notice this new law once it was in effect. In fact, he promised that the enactment of this legislation would be easy, simple, and seamless,” said state Sen. Jean Kurtis Schodorf (D) during a campaign speech in her run for secretary of state. “My mistake was trusting Kris Kobach: believing the lies that Kris Kobach told me, the lies that Kris Kobach told the Legislature, and the lies that Kris Kobach told the Kansas people.
“We have now lived with this law for over a year and a half, and its effects have been devastating.”
While the photo ID requirement blocked about 500 voters from casting votes in the 2012 elections, the effects of the citizenship requirement has been even more acute.
As of January 2014, more than 20,000 persons attempting to register as first-time voters in Kansas are being held in a “suspense” status until they provide documentary proof of their citizenship. In some cases, activists said, those would-be voters may have already provided proof to the Division of Vehicles, which then failed to pass on the documents to the elections authorities.
Forcing eligible voters to navigate additional hurdles before they can vote undermines the goal of the federal National Voter Registration Act, or “Motor Voter” law, which was intended to increase participation in the American democracy, activists said.
“This is a new and hefty barrier to registration,” said Julie Ebenstein, counsel with the ACLU Voting Rights Project. She added, “Any state who cares about their responsibility to increase the numbers of eligible voters will be concerned and very cautious with how this law has played out so far.”
In testimony before the House Elections Committee in January 2014, Kobach said 72 percent of new voting registrants had already provided proof of citizenship and touted the number as being “extraordinarily high.”
But detractors say Kobach should be more concerned with the remaining 28 percent.
“If this law was put in place because of voter fraud, which has been proven in so few numbers, that is not a match to the more than 19,000 people who wish to vote and are barred from doing so,” said Dolores Furtado, president, League of Women Voters of Kansas.
The League has worked with Johnson County—and a couple of other counties followed suit—whose officials provided devices that allowed League volunteers to take pictures of individuals’ citizenship certificates at naturalization ceremonies and pass on those documents to election officials.
An effort has also been made to match names on the suspension list to birth records from the state office of vital statistics and that has produced about 7,700 matches.
Still, Furtado said, there is a “discriminatory effect” against Kansans who have changed their name—mostly women—and those born outside the state.
The League was also one of the interveners, supporting the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, in a lawsuit filed by Kobach to force the EAC to add Kansas’ citizenship requirement to federal mail voter registration forms.
The complaint is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the meantime, however, Kobach has declared that Kansas voters who use the federal registration form will only be able to vote in federal races.
That two-tiered or dual registration system – which the ACLU and others have challenged in court – is clearly discriminatory, critics have said.
“Kansans proudly fought to correct the Jim Crow separate but equal laws through the Brown vs. Board of Education case. However, right now in the state of Kansas, radical Kris Kobach is making our voters separate and unequal,” Schodorf said. “This is clear-cut disenfranchisement. Not all Kansas citizens are being treated equally. This is government at its worst. And it is wrong.”
Equally questionable, voting rights activists said, is the Kansas-hosted Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which is used to check for duplicate voter registrations and possible double voting.
Republican proponents claim the program provides solid evidence of “widespread voter fraud,” and have used it to justify a number of voter restrictions.
That was the case earlier this year when North Carolina officials said the database found that about 38,000 voters in their state were also registered in other states, causing hysteria among voter fraud believers. On closer examination of the list, however, the names of at least four state legislators appeared, and the list was further whittled down as evidence of clerical and other errors were found. In fact, very few actual cases of fraud have been referred for prosecution.
“It is another incident in which the facts really don’t match some of the dire predictions and this world legislators have dreamed up to justify these suppressive voting laws,” the ACLU’s Ebenstein said. “It should be a very careful process [of determination] before we deny someone the right to vote or remove them from registration lists. Certainly the overblown scare tactics and rough determinations are not sufficient.”