I am a white male, but most Americans are not.
For many, even everyday encounters with public authority, law enforcement for example, can be terrifying. This makes me especially alarmed about a new law giving Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach the power to prosecute voter fraud, passed by the Kansas Legislature last month in the frenzy of last-minute legislation.
The law is strange.
First, because prosecution power typically is vested in federal authorities, state attorneys general, and local county prosecutors and district attorneys, not secretaries of state. Second, even Kobach himself cannot find voter fraud in Kansas. For example, his office publicly named a Wichita voter who they claimed was deceased. Wichita Eagle reporters found the man raking leaves in his yard. Kobach’s office also scrutinized the voter rolls for duplicates: possibly voters registering and voting twice. He found a tiny 0.00000017 percent of the voters to be potentially suspicious. Later, Kobach claimed U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom was ignoring his requests to prosecute voter fraud — but Grissom told the Eagle that Kobach had referred no such cases to him.
Given this law, Kobach’s track record of accusing innocent people of voter fraud becomes downright chilling. The chilling effect is a term used in several U.S. Supreme Court rulings, referring to laws that might prevent legal activity from happening because of intimidation. For example, in the past, the court has intervened to protect reporters from prosecution. The justices did not want this fear to chill the constitutionally-protected freedom of the press.
Kobach’s new law might have chilling effects on voting.
Certainly voters are confused, as are poll workers — many of whom receive little training when the laws change or relevant court rulings are issued. For example, a colleague of mine had to prove to skeptical Douglas County poll workers that his passport is an acceptable photo identification for a voter. If poll workers do not understand these rules, how can voters? Under this new law, a voter facing legitimate confusion about identification, change of address, or polling place may fear prosecution for an innocent mistake — even if it is Kobach’s mistake.
Last year, I joined my colleague Chapman Rackaway, a professor at Fort Hays State University and a fellow Insight Kansas writer, and Kevin Anderson, of Eastern Illinois University, to analyze the tumultuous history of voting laws in the U.S. Too often, laws purportedly designed to protect the integrity of the process have in fact been aimed at preventing certain people from voting. We also found that the proof-of-citizenship laws Kobach championed earlier — part of the so-called “SAFE Act” in Kansas and copied in several other states — link to lower voter turnout as a county’s poverty rate increases.
Registering and voting is a hassle, and not all elections are close enough to be swayed by just a few votes. Instead, we rely on civic duty and the satisfaction of doing one’s part, to turn out voters. Such noble aspirations dissolve quickly in a climate of fear. Kobach’s new law is not only unnecessary, it is dangerous.
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.