TOPEKA, Kan. — Secretary of State Kris Kobach's bill to require some potential voters to prove U.S. citizenship ahead of this year's presidential election received first-round approval Wednesday in the state House, though disagreements surfaced among fellow Republicans.
The measure would impose the proof-of-citizenship requirement on June 15, more than six months ahead of schedule and in time for the normal surge of first-time registrations before a presidential contest. Legislators enacted a proof-of-citizenship requirement last year that wouldn't take effect until Jan. 1, 2013.
The House advanced the bill on a voice vote, setting up a final vote Thursday to determine whether the bill goes to the Senate.
Kobach, a Republican and former law professor who helped draft tough laws in Alabama and Arizona designed to crack down on illegal immigration, contends the requirement will keep non-citizens from registering and is part of a larger effort to combat election fraud. Critics note reports of non-citizens voting in Kansas remain rare and say the proof-of-citizenship rule will prevent poor, minority and elderly Kansans from registering.
Kobach's bill had appeared likely to pass the House, where Republicans have a large majority and most share Kobach's conservative views. But a few GOP legislators joined persistent Democratic critics on Wednesday in wondering whether state officials, election officials and Kansans involved in registration efforts are ready to have the rule in place this year.
During a morning GOP caucus meeting, Republican Rep. Caryn Tyson, of Parker, noted that county election officials already are dealing with a law that took effect this year to require voters to show photo identification at the polls. During the House's debate, Rep. Bob Brookens, a Marion Republican, said the rule could be a burden for nursing homes, which may have to help new residents hunt down birth certificates or other documents.
"You've heard the other facts, and I'm not going into them, but the practicalities for each nursing home should weigh in on what we do," Brookens said.
One issue has been a $40 million upgrade of the computer system for issuing driver's licenses to comply with a federal law that requires Kansas to verify citizenship before renewing them. The goal is to allow the state Division of Vehicles to transfer electronic copies of birth certificates and other documents to election officials. The division's officials say the system should be ready before June 15.
Some lawmakers also question whether Kobach's office can do enough voter education this year. He is planning a $300,000 campaign and said it will blanket the state with broadcast and print ads.
Kobach and his allies contend fears that Kansas is unprepared are unfounded. House members supporting his bill say it makes sense to have the proof-of-citizenship rule in place earlier because about 150,000 new voters are expected to register between July and mid-October, when registration closes.
The secretary of state's office said it found 32 non-citizens on registration rolls last year.
"If we don't get this proof-of-citizenship requirement in, in June, we are going to have more people that are not legally qualified to vote in Kansas on the rolls," said Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican. "It is extremely difficult to find and remove the aliens on the voter rolls once they get on."
But Rep. Ann Mah, a Topeka Democrat who voted for the final version of last year's legislation, said imposing the requirement early will hamper voter registration drives. She predicted that it won't be easy for many Kansans to find their birth certificates and other documents.
"How many tens of thousands are just going to give up?" she said. "The bill is bad on many levels."
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The proof-of-citizenship measure is HB 2437.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
Kansas secretary of state: http://www.kssos.org