Today voters in Johnson County go to the polls for spring primaries. Mission and Prairie Village will vote on Council seats; the city of Shawnee will vote on a new mayor.
There have been a handful of elections around Kansas since the controversial new voter I.D. law went into effect January 1st.
In the Southwest Kansas town of Cimarron earlier this year, there was one reported problem, but Olathe Republican Representative Scott Schwab, who supports the legislation, says it was small.
“(The problem was) just a person who wanted to vote but refused to show an I.D. He had it, but refused to show it out of protest,” Schwab said.
That person, like anyone who comes to vote without proper documentation, filed a provisional ballot. The law says anyone without I.D. has until the following Monday to bring in the documentation to make the vote count.
The first election that required Johnson Countians to show I.D. took place on Valentine’s Day in Roeland Park. Johnson County Election Commissioner Brian Newby says turnout for the special election was 11 percent. He says that’s not bad for a wintertime special election, and that poll workers and voters were prepared for the change.
“I don’t think from an I.D. standpoint, it could have gone better," Newby said. "We didn’t have a single issue in terms of people not knowing about the I.D., not bringing it in. It went very well.”
But critics claim the law is a solution in search of a problem.
There are few documented cases of voter fraud in Kansas, and even fewer prosecutions.
Critics say the I.D. requirements can discourage elderly, minority, disabled, or rural voters. An October 2011 study from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University looked at voter i.d. laws in 19 states and two executive actions passed in 14 states. The report found the laws made it “significantly more difficult” for as many as 5 million to vote in 2012 elections.
Brandi Fisher of the political advocacy group Mainstream Coalition says the biggest challenge is not so much straightforward I.D. requirements, but the Proof of Citizenship, scheduled to go into effect in January of next year.
The Kansas law was passed with a provision that will require voters who’ve never registered in Kansas to prove they are citizens. Some lawmakers and officials, including Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, are pushing to have proof of citizenship start in June, in advance of the November elections.
Fisher worries this won’t allow time for people to learn about the new law or acquire the necessary documents. For example, non-drivers or the elderly may be particularly burdened if they have to send for birth certificates or marriage licenses from out of state.
“I think for most of us, we don’t think twice about it," Fisher said. "But for those that don’t have (a birth certificate or marriage license) it is more challenging. Anyone who’s had to go get some kind of documentation know the process can be quite tedious.”
A group of Kansas voter-rights organizations is considering a legal challenge to the new law. A spokesman for The Kansas Voter Coalition said potential costs associated with acquiring necessary documentation amount to a poll tax, according to the Associated Press.
But Representative Scott Schwab calls this characterization ridiculous. He says the argument that the new voter I.D. law is a poll tax is like “saying ‘I had to put gas in my car to get to the polls’….it’s not a poll tax.”
Schwab and other backers say there are 13 acceptable documents to prove citizenship and that the state will waive fees if necessary.
But Janis McMillan of the Kansas League of Women Voters says when we’re trying to improve on historically low voter turnout, it doesn’t make sense to create obstacles to voting.
“Certainly before a presidential election, what one would hope would happen is that everything possible would be done to facilitate as many eligible voters to the polls as possible,” she said.
Johnson County will hold general elections on April 3rd.