Secretary of State Kris Kobach has proposed two rule changes to the “SAFE” act, the 2011 law passed at Kobach’s urging which requires voters to show proof of citizenship in order to register, and photo ID in order to vote.
One uncontroversial change would stipulate that a Kansas voter would not need to show said proof a second time when moving to, and re-registering in another county within the state. This is fine, but the problem lies in the second proposal.
Kobach is proposing to remove Kansas’ “suspense voters” from the rolls after 90 days. Now more than 30,000 and climbing, suspense voters are the ones who registered to vote, but did not show proof of citizenship. They now remain in limbo, neither registered nor unregistered, until they provide said proof, usually in the form of a birth certificate. For people born out of state or without birth certificates, this can be an onerous, time-consuming, and expensive task: so much so that courts in both Texas and Wisconsin have ruled it a poll tax, which is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution and many state ones as well. Removing suspense voters from the registration rolls after only 90 days is a bad idea, even possibly illegal.
First of all, in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council (2013) the U.S. Supreme Court held that voters do not need to show proof of citizenship to register and vote in federal elections. For a state to require otherwise would violate the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, popularly known as “motor voter.” If voters who registered on the federal form are eliminated from the rolls in Kansas, they will would be stripped of their lawful right to vote in federal elections, putting Kansas in violation of both the law and the Court ruling.
Second, a substantial number of suspense voters do complete their registrations. My own data analysis with colleagues indicates that about 16 percent of them completed their registration within an eight-month period: nearly three times the time given to them to complete their registrations under this proposed rule change. My colleagues and I cross-checked a complete list 23,691 suspense voters from October 2014 with a list of all fully registered Kansas voters from June 2015. We found that 3,705 suspense voters had completed their registrations during the eight-month period, nearly three times as long as the period specified in this proposed rule change. However, most of those voters who eventually completed did not vote in the November 2014 general election — one month after our first list was drawn — so we have reason to believe that many did not complete their registrations right away.
Finally, this proposed rule change is a “bait and switch,” misleading would-be voters about closing dates prior to an election in which they wish to vote. Kansans are typically allowed to register up to 21 days before a coming election in which they wish to vote. As per the “SAFE” Act, suspense voters are allowed to show proof of citizenship and complete their registrations up until the day of the election. Suspense voters may seek to complete their registrations as a major election approaches, and this rule change would deny them the right to do that unless they re-registered 21 days before the election, when they had been led to believe they had until the day of the election to complete their registrations.
One last thing: The numbers in play here greatly dwarf the number of voters actually accused of voter fraud. A 2011 report from the secretary of state’s own office suggested only 221 cases of possible — but unverified — voter fraud between 1997 and 2010 (a 13 year period). That comes out to 0.007 — seven tenths of one percent — of the number currently on the suspense list, now facing removal from the voting rolls because of this proposed rule change.
Michael A. Smith is an associate professor in the political science department at Emporia State University and a member of the “Insight Kansas” writing group.