The following is a memo written for a graduate public policy course at the University of Pennsylvania taught by Dr. Marc Meredith.
An Overview of the Problem
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s complex voting registration system has led to thousands of disenfranchised voters. Restrictive voting regulations – like early registration deadlines and the proof of citizenship requirement – lead to fewer people participating in the voting process, an apathetic society, and a government less representative of the people of Kansas. Voting is a key tool to our democracy. Increasing the percentage of Kansans who vote will lead the government to be more representative of its citizens.
Disenfranchising Voters is Undemocratic
With the impetus of preventing voter fraud, Secretary of State Kobach implemented a two-tier voting registration process in 2012 that resulted in thousands of people in the 2013 state election to be unable to vote. To be able to vote, residents of the state need to submit the required application – along with proof of their citizenship, like a state-issued photo ID – by a specific deadline. These policies result in substantial confusion. Because of this two-step approach, 19,000 people were put into a limbo where they were not fully registered to vote, but had started the process, by the time of the election. According to the Government Accountability Office, Kansas’ voter ID law reduced turnout by approximately 2 percent in 2012. “If the law’s effect was similar this year, it would mean that turnout was about 17,000 voters lower than it otherwise would have been…In short, the margin of victory in Kansas looks perilously close to the margin of disenfranchisement,” notes the Brennan Center for Justice. Ultimately, though Kansas has almost 1.8 million registered voters, an additional 15,000 can decide a tight statewide race.
Though Kobach’s system was upheld by a federal judge in 2014, a Kansas judge denied his attempt to end a lawsuit challenging the state’s two-tier voter registration system in August 2015. Voter fraud has not been proven to be a significant problem that would outweigh severely regulating the process of registration as “Kobach argued in 2011 that he had identified 211 separate cases of voter fraud, yet only seven of those cases led to convictions”. Based on the anecdotal accounts of the three cases of voter fraud that Kobach is currently prosecuting, fraud is mostly due to forgetfulness and not being educated about the process. For example, a couple who was moving away from Kansas voted by mail in the state before relocating to Arkansas and voting in-person. The couple argued in court that they simply forgot that they had previously voted, because of differences in the deadlines for each state. This system devalues people who cannot commit the time to understanding the complex registration system, such as working families and lower-income people. Conversely, some parties may argue that requiring additional steps makes citizens weigh the process of voting more heavily, and requires them to be fully educated before voting. Others argue that the process disenfranchises voters because the Secretary of State’s office and the various county election offices do not actually educate the residents of the state as much as is necessary when the process is made more complex.
The people who have a stake in this policy problem are numerous – all residents of the state, members of Kansas Legislature, the news media – and can apply public pressure to the Secretary of State or Governor. Elected officials should be concerned about disenfranchising their constituents and can educate the public about the process and urge them to advocate for another option.
States across the nation have implemented a variety of policies to simply the voter registration process. Currently, residents of Kansas must still scan or fax documents in order to register. The National Conference of State Legislatures advocates for electronic or online voter registration. This option is convenient, but an argument against it is the increased potential for voter fraud. Similarly, automatic voter registration when residents get a driver’s license, or register for classes at a state university, is an option advocated for by the Brennan Center for Justice. Oregon, one of the states with the biggest increase in voter turnout, has implemented voting by mail only. Secretary of State Kobach, like with the other two policy options, might argue that this system would increase fraud cases, but advocates argue that this allows for people to do more research on the candidates in advance and that it is easier for people who are working full-time and low income. This option would also save the state and county money with the cost savings from not having to staff poll locations. South Dakota and Alaska, respectively, have increased turnout by making it more convenient for residents to vote. South Dakotans can register up to 15 days in advance of the election – much later the nationwide norm – and Alaska has expanded their capacity for early and absentee voting, which is advantageous for people in rural areas.
An opposing viewpoint to these policies argues that people can change their mind before the election should something significant occur in the political landscape. Finally, Wisconsin, Maine and Minnesota, the states with the highest voter turnout in the nation, have implemented same-day voting and registration. Over 60 percent of Minnesotans have voted in their lifetime due to the competitive politics in the state and the ease of access to voting. One disadvantage to this option is that it may lead to party switching, to which the Kansas Republican Party of which Kobach is a member, is not in favor. In addition, more education is needed for poll workers, which may be difficult in a state with a severe revenue shortfall like Kansas.
The Kansas Secretary of State’s website asserts that it “strive[s] to be the least complicated, most accessible office in state government”. To fully adhere to this mission, I urge Kris Kobach to change the current voter registration procedure and eliminate the two-tier system in favor for one that makes the process of voting simpler and more accessible to all. While I understand the value in protecting the system from fraud, I urge you to weigh the solutions listed above and choose one that provides a secure medium from the options you have at your disposal – such as automatic voter registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles. This change is needed to ensure that Kansas remains a true democracy. Kansans should not literally have to adhere to the state’s motto – ad astra per aspera or to the stars through difficulty – just to cast a vote.