Dem. Gov.-candidate Laura Kelly under scrutiny for backing voter ID

Published: Aug. 1, 2018 at 3:43 PM CDT
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The leading Democratic candidate for Kansas governor is under attack for her past backing of tough voter identification policies as her party prepares for the possibility that the champion of those measures, conservative Kris Kobach, will win the Republican nomination.

Democrats have regularly criticized Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, over policies they believe suppress voter turnout. No state had gone further in requiring prospective voters to provide papers documenting their U.S. citizenship when registering, until a federal judge struck down the law in June as a violation of voting rights.

But the Kansas law had strong bipartisan support when the Legislature approved it in 2011, and one of the yes votes came from state Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka. That vote has dogged Kelly in the final weeks before the Aug. 7 primary, with her two main rivals — who were not lawmakers at the time — hoping Democratic voters turn away from her because of it.

“How can we have as the standard-bearer for the party someone who voted with Kris Kobach, really, on his signature issue?” one of them, former Kansas Agriculture Secretary Joshua Svaty, said during an interview after raising the issue in forums.

The measure that Kelly and two-thirds of the Democrats then in the Legislature backed imposed the proof-of-citizenship requirement, starting in 2013. The state is appealing the ruling that struck it down.

Only a few other states have attempted to impose a proof-of-citizenship requirement. Alabama and Georgia have such laws but they are not currently being enforced and Arizona has a more lenient version, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes them and has fought Kobach in court.

Kelly was a sponsor in 2016 of a bill that would have allowed people born in Kansas to check a box on registration forms, with the state verifying their status, so that citizenship papers would not be necessary to register. It died in committee without a hearing.

“I’ve always been a supporter of voting rights and expanding access to it, but I also saw the need to make sure that our elections were secure,” she said in an interview. “Kobach just went way beyond the authority given to him.”

Kelly’s main Democratic rivals are Svaty and former Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer. Svaty was a House member from 2003 to 2009, leaving to become agriculture secretary. Brewer has never served in the Legislature,

Brewer, seeking to become Democrats’ first black nominee for governor, says he could better stand up to Kobach.

“I just don’t think they did their homework,” Brewer said of legislators who supported the voter ID policies.

Kobach is trying to unseat Gov. Jeff Colyer in a contentious Republican primary race. Many Democrats expect Kobach’s solid base on the right to allow him to win the GOP nomination in a seven-candidate field.

He regularly cites the voter ID policies as one of his biggest accomplishments.

“He spent eight years banging this drum,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas, a frequent Kobach antagonist. “It is what his entire public record is built on.”

President Donald Trump has cited Kobach as a source for his unsubstantiated claim that millions of immigrants voted illegally in 2016 and Kobach was a vice chairman of Trump’s since-disbanded voter fraud commission.

Kobach argues that tough voter ID policies prevent election fraud, even though he has cited only a few dozen registrations by non-citizens and even fewer attempts by them to vote. U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson ruled in June that the proof-of-citizenship policy disproportionately affects qualified voters.

In the first three years the Kansas proof-of-citizenship requirement was in effect, about one in seven registration applications was blocked — nearly half of them from people under 30, according to court documents. Between 2013 and 2016, more than 35,000 Kansas residents were unable to register. The state has about 1.8 million registered voters.

Kobach’s actions in lawsuits over his policies also have led to him being cited for contempt of court twice, and in an extraordinary rebuke, Robinson ordered him to undergo six extra hours of legal education.

Kelly and other prominent Democrats have argued that lawmakers who voted for his voter ID policies couldn’t guess that Kobach would enforce them as aggressively as he did. They also accuse him of abusing his authority.

But Kobach scoffed at such arguments during a recent interview. He said most Democrats voted for his policies because they were popular and changed their views later when the national Democratic Party — the “mother ship” — attacked them.

“There was absolutely nothing in the implementation of the law that was surprising,” Kobach said. “They’re just trying to scrape the bottom of the barrel for something that sounds like an excuse.”

And longstanding critics of the voter ID policies such as the ACLU and civil rights leaders argue that lawmakers were warned clearly about how they would create obstacles for prospective voters. But some of them aren’t holding the past vote against Kelly or other Democrats who now promise to work to reverse them.

“I’m just glad they’re remorseful now,” Kubic said.