Kansas has been in national headlines recently for many pieces of controversial legislation and a heated education funding lawsuit. One issue that has gained less attention recently is Kansas’ contentious “proof of citizenship” voter identification law. This law, championed by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, passed two years ago to reduce the amount of supposed voter fraud in our state. Ever since, individuals who have tried to register were asked to present proof of citizenship documentation in order to get on the voter rolls.
Fighting so-called voter fraud might sound like a good idea on the surface, but voter ID laws disenfranchise marginalized communities. While evidence for widespread voter fraud remains non-existent, more and more states are pushing laws that require additional identification in order to cast a vote.
The basic premise of these laws is flawed. Non-citizens almost never register to vote, and there are stopgaps already in place to prevent people from registering or voting under a false identity, including steep federal and state penalties for people who commit voter fraud. Instead of protecting the vote, voter ID laws create unnecessary barriers to participating in our democracy.
In Kansas, the new law created distinctions between federal and state voting requirements, making the registration process far more difficult for many eligible voters who do not have acceptable forms of identification. This disproportionately affects low income people, women of color, and naturalized citizens. This law, if left unchanged, will effectively prevent people without the necessary identification from voting in state and local elections, denying them a say in their own communities.
Approximately 20,000 Kansans’ voter registrations were put on hold because applicants couldn’t provide proof of citizenship. Most of these registrations have been filed at driver’s license bureaus, which only comply with federal registration regulations, not the new state-specific registration requirements. This makes the registrations incompatible with Kansas’ new regulations, effectively preventing registrants from voting in local elections. Many individuals are unaware of the distinction, and do not realize they will only be able to vote in federal elections on Election Day.
It is clear that under these conditions the new voter registration system is not stopping massive waves of voter fraud; instead it is muddying the pathways for Kansans to exercise their right to vote. It establishes a two-tiered voting system, where some Kansans can only vote in federal elections and others who can also vote in local elections. Kansas’ voting system has thus become separate and unequal.
This cannot be tolerated. The registration system is broken and will not be fixed by continuing down this same path. Voting is not a privilege of a few citizens – it is a right granted to all. Voting is how we exercise our voice in a representative democracy and undermining that right limits the effectiveness and the authority of our government.
For these issues and more, Kansas’ voter registration law is currently under review by a federal judge, who is expected to release his decision soon. This is not the time for Kansans to remain silent on issues that prevent our children, family members, and neighborhoods from having a voice in our political system. We must fix our voter registration system instead of disenfranchising our communities.
Micah Melia is a 2013 YP4 Fellow currently attending the University of Kansas.