The American Civil Liberties Union launched a national voting rights campaign during a Sunday night event in Lawrence that was broadcast online throughout the country. It was the start of a grassroots effort, called Let People Vote, which the ACLU says is a chance to go on the offensive.
Hundreds of people gathered for the start of the event, which was strategically placed in Kansas, the home of Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach. He’s a staunch supporter of strict voting rules and has pushed for laws that require people to produce a citizenship document when registering and show photo ID at the polls.
During the meeting, the speakers repeatedly mentioned and criticized Kobach, eliciting cheers from the crowd.
ACLU Political Director Faiz Shakir said the organization would prefer to make changes on the national level through Congress but sees that as unlikely.
“Given the dysfunction in Congress, we are not going to pass anything through there to expand voting rights. It would be ideal if we could,” Shakir said. “The only way that we can fight to expand voting rights in America is to go state by state by state.”
In Kansas, one ACLU goal is to repeal the voter ID and registration laws. The group has formed plans for every state to expand early voting, simplify registration and change the redistricting process.
Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in recent years the group has filed lawsuits in response to new voting laws.
“Like a game of whack-a-mole, trying to stop each one of these laws every time that they emerge,” he said. “All that is, at the end of the day, is playing defense. We have to go on offense.”
Kobach has seen a rising national profile. He’s now vice chairman of a commission created by President Donald Trump to study voter fraud. Trump has made an unsubstantiated claim that he would have won the popular vote in the 2016 election if it weren’t for millions of illegal votes cast.
Sarah Magnuson, from Lawrence, attended the meeting. She said she had been unhappy with Kobach, but the federal voter fraud commission was a motivating factor.
“Now with this commission, I needed to get really involved and not just talking about it,” Magnuson said.
Magnuson attended the event with Mary Ann Henry, from Baldwin City.
“I feel hopeful. I feel that maybe the common man has a possibility of being heard,” Henry said.
However, Henry admits it’s easier said than done.
“It’s one thing to listen,” she said. “It’s something else to go home, and then what are you going to do about it?”
Before the meeting, Kobach said he wasn’t surprised that the ACLU chose Kansas for the kickoff because it is a leading state in voter security with its photo ID and voter registration rules.
“The ACLU and I have been at loggerheads,” Kobach said. “Franky, it’s fair to say the ACLU and the Kansas Legislature have been at loggerheads because the Legislature, at my urging, adopted these requirements.”
Kobach said he isn’t concerned about the campaign changing voting laws, because he believes they have broad support.
“I don’t think that it will be very fruitful,” he said. “I doubt they’ll persuade the Kansas Legislature to get rid of photo ID or proof of citizenship.”
Kobach is not seeking another term as secretary as state but instead has launched a campaign for governor.
State Rep. Scott Schwab, one of the Republican candidates to replace Kobach as secretary of state, supports the state’s voting policies and said they initially passed with bipartisan support.
“Political hijackers like the ACLU shouldn’t try telling us what our election laws should and shouldn’t be,” Schwab said in a statement. “Measures like voter ID protect our elections and give every Kansan results they can trust.”
Kobach has said the state’s voting policies have helped prevent voter fraud by blocking illegal voters. Critics, like the ACLU, hae said voter fraud is rare and the rules have made it harder for eligible voters.
Stephen Koranda is Statehouse reporter for Kansas Public Radio, a partner in the Kansas News Service. Follow him on Twitter @kprkoranda.