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On January 1, 2017, the KHI News Service became part of KCUR public radio’s new initiative, the Kansas News Service. The Kansas News Service will continue to cover health policy news and broaden its scope to include education and politics. All stories produced by the former KHI News Service are archived here. Stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to KHI.org.

Thousands of Kansans in limbo over proof of citizenship requirement

By Stephen Koranda | June 15, 2016

Thousands of Kansans in limbo over proof of citizenship requirement
Photo by Stephen Koranda/Kansas Public Radio Bernadette Forge, right, of the League of Women Voters of Topeka, helps a new citizen register to vote. She recently helped people at a naturalization ceremony register to vote in Kansas.

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This story is part of a 2016 Kansas elections collaboration involving KHI News Service, KCUR, KMUW, Kansas Public Radio and High Plains Public Radio.

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.

Related story: Kansas moves to register some voters without citizenship proof. ]

Bernadette Forge, with the League of Women Voters in Topeka, unpacked scanners and iPads at a recent voter registration event. 

“The iPad, the advantage is you don’t need electricity. These copiers are inexpensive and rather slow,” Forge said.

That’s why Forge is registering people at a naturalization ceremony where nearly 200 people will become 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,’” she said.

Photo by Stephen Koranda/Kansas Public Radio Marge Ahrens, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, says voter registration requirements in Kansas have gone too far.

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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 said, “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 required to vote, 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 said.

Marge Ahrens, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said actual voter fraud cases are rare. She said, in the name of security, 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 said. “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 said 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 said.

Kobach said requiring people to provide a citizenship document is a necessary step because illegal votes cancel the votes of Kansas citizens, possibly turning the results of a close election.

Photo by Stephen Koranda/Kansas Public Radio Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach pushed for a 2011 state law that requires voter applicants to submit proof of citizenship. The law faces a court challenge.

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“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 said.

In fact, Kobach said 95 percent of people who register to vote complete the process. He believes the law will survive legal fights and said 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,” said Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas.

While it’s possible the voting rules could affect an election, Miller calls it highly unlikely because of the types of people on the list. He said many of them are younger people or move frequently.

“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,” he said.

Right now, the voter registration rules in Kansas are up in the air. A court said people who registered at the DMV and are suspended should be allowed to vote, at least in federal elections, but there’s still some uncertainty. A federal appeals court will consider the issue in August.