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The Future Of Kansas Voter Laws


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ailsa Chang, sitting in for Rachel Martin. The recent sweep of court decisions striking down state voter ID laws has made it easier for thousands of Americans to cast their ballots. But legal battles are still brewing. In Kansas, there's a law that requires voters to prove they are U.S. citizens. That means presenting a U.S. passport or a birth certificate or other approved document to register to vote. A state court allowed some voters who couldn't fulfill that requirement to cast ballots in last week's primary. But it's not clear what will happen in Kansas for the November election. Bryan Lowry, a reporter for The Wichita Eagle, told me how the law has kept Kansans from voting.

BRYAN LOWRY: So in 2014, when we had the last gubernatorial election, there were more than 20,000 people who were in a suspended status. So those were people who could have possibly cast their ballots in the gubernatorial election but were unable to. And when you think about the governor's race being decided by a little bit more than 30,000 votes, that's pretty significant.

CHANG: And your paper did an analysis of who these people were. What groups were disproportionately affected by this law?

LOWRY: People under 30, a cluster also in urban areas, so Wichita, the state's largest city, college towns like Lawrence, Kan., where the University of Kansas is, which makes sense because you might have a voting drive on campus, not every freshman is walking around with their birth certificate in their wallet.

CHANG: Why is it such a challenge for some people, not just college students, but other people in Kansas to show proof of citizenship? What kind of things are you hearing?

LOWRY: Well, so there's actually - a lot of elderly people have had problems with this. There may be somebody who was delivered by a midwife on the prairie in the 1920s. They didn't necessarily have a government birth certificate made up. I actually got to watch one time. The state board, which is made up of our secretary of state, our attorney general and our lieutenant governor, decide that a woman's family Bible that had her name and her birth date written in the margins was satisfactory proof of citizenship.

But a lot of people don't necessarily go through the effort to get three of the state's highest officers to register them to vote. And, I mean, it's - it becomes a little bit problematic, especially for people who were not born in the state of Kansas. If you moved to Kansas from another state, your birth certificate is not necessarily easily accessible, and it may actually, in some cases, cost money for you to get it sent to Kansas.

CHANG: In 2014, a federal judge ruled that the Kansas law violated the Federal Motor Voter Act, which allows people to register to vote at DMVs without showing proof of citizenship. In response, the state came up with a new rule. It allowed DMV registrants to vote only in federal but not state elections. The ACLU challenged that rule in a state court, and the judge gave voters who registered at DMVs a temporary reprieve. The court allowed them to vote in last week's primary but left some Kansans in limbo.

LOWRY: Because it's still a pending case, the judge may rule the same way or he may end up reversing it. So there may be people who were able to cast a ballot Tuesday who may not be able to cast their ballot in November.

CHANG: How much are the demographics of Kansas changing? What is fueling this fear that non-citizens are going to be voting in the election?

LOWRY: Clearly, there is a growing Latino community. We do have a large number of immigrants who are working in the agricultural industry here in Kansas. We do have a large number of immigrants coming into cities. And a lot of the Latino rights groups see this law as being intentionally discriminatory towards them.

CHANG: That was Bryan Lowry of The Wichita Eagle. We also reached out to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and caught up with him at an airport. I asked him why Kansas was demanding proof of citizenship given the very few documented cases of non-citizens registering to vote. Secretary Kobach answered by citing statistics from one Kansas county. When the county began going back over records, it found that 25 non-citizens had registered or attempted to register in recent years, and of those 25, three had voted illegally.

KRIS KOBACH: But then you multiply that out times all of our counties and the individuals that we don't catch, which are the majority of the ones, then you're talking about a total number in the hundreds or thousands statewide. So is it justified? Absolutely because the plaintiffs have yet to find a single person who can't meet our requirement of proving citizenship to register and is actually a U.S. citizen.

CHANG: Are you saying that the vote - the rate of voter fraud in one county is constant throughout all the counties? That's your hypothesis.

KOBACH: No. What I'm saying is we don't know the true number of non-citizens on the voter rolls in the entire state of Kansas because not all of the counties are doing the very labor-intensive way of trying to figure out how many and track the ones that they find in that county. So suffice it to say, it's a significant number. And when you have close elections and, you know, by the way, just in the primary we had a few days ago in Kansas, we had half a dozen state legislative races where the margin of victory was less than 100 votes. When you have close races, then 50, a dozen fraudulent votes can make the difference between victory and defeat for a candidate.

CHANG: We're hearing that this law makes it harder for many groups of people to vote, elderly people in rural areas, for example, college students, people who are actual citizens. Why is it worth putting obstacles in their way given, still, the very small number of voter ID fraud that's been proven?

KOBACH: The plaintiffs have yet to produce any evidence that any individuals of certain categories have a harder time providing proof of citizenship. We actually did a scientific survey of the state, and we found that no one cited our proof of citizenship law as a reason that they had declined to register to vote. And when we looked at support for the law among different groups, it was among the highest among elderly individuals, for example, and among certain minority groups as well.

CHANG: You were on a three-person panel that gets to decide what is sufficient proof of citizenship. And in one case, for an elderly voter, you decided on that panel that a family Bible could substitute for a birth certificate. This was a voter who did not have a birth certificate. So, I mean, there is an example of how this law has made it harder for some voters.

KOBACH: Well, actually, that's an example of the safety net that's included in the law. So in that particular case, it wasn't that the person never had a birth certificate. It was that the state of Arkansas had an administrative problem and could not reproduce the record, and it wasn't just the family Bible. It was a, you know, census records, the family Bible and other things. And that was sufficient to allow the person to demonstrate U.S. citizenship and complete the registration.

CHANG: It sounds like, ultimately, it's up to your personal discretion what constitutes proof of citizenship, correct?

KOBACH: Well, the statute describes 13 documents that absolutely provide legal proof of citizenship. The three-person panel is a safety net for the very rare cases. It's only happened four times in the approximately three years that the law has been in effect. And in almost all cases, it's evidence indicating that the person was in fact born in the United States.

CHANG: That was Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. He spearheaded the state's proof of citizenship law. Kolbach says he will continue to defend the law in a hearing set for September. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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