The state’s voter identification law came under fire Tuesday night at a legislative forum where ordinary citizens got a chance to tell lawmakers what they want from the session that begins next week.
The open-mike session drew a crowd of about 100, about 40 of whom chose to speak on a variety of issues ranging from abortion to fluoridated water to police brutality.
But the 25 lawmakers who attended the forum heard the most about dissatisfaction with the voting law they passed in 2011 at the request of Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Kobach contends that photo ID and proof of citizenship are necessary to prevent voter fraud by immigrants legal and illegal.
But resident Bryan Mann told the lawmakers that the real purpose of the voter ID law is to suppress Democratic-leaning voter groups – especially minorities and the elderly – to cement Republican domination of state government.
He drew loud cheers after he called the law “nothing more than partisan gamesmanship and a watered down Jim Crow law,” referring to the pre-civil-rights statutes used in southern states to deny voting privileges to black people.
In last year’s elections, for the first time, all Kansas voters were required to show photo ID when they voted at the polls.
This year, a new provision takes effect requiring that new voting registrants provide proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or passport.
Opponents say that part of the law causes confusion for voters and essentially makes it impossible for groups to hold voter registration drives.
“Would you turn your personal information, such as your Social Security number or a copy of your birth certificate, over to a complete stranger?” said Esau Freeman. “This is what Kris Kobach has tricked you into passing. It’s a law that won’t allow the Republican Party or the Democratic Party or anybody to go and register first-time voters without being able to put that documentation up front.”
Kobach has previously recommended that groups that want to register voters could help fill out the registration forms and let the prospective voters send them in themselves after they gather the needed documents.
Lawmakers did not speak to issues raised by the public during the meeting. But later, several acknowledged the pushback against the voter ID law and said it may need a second look when they get to Topeka.
“I think a lot of people have serious concerns about making it harder to vote,” said Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, who opposed the law when it passed. “Whether our extremely conservative friends will hear that is the question.”
Two local Wichita Republican representatives who voted for the law, Les Osterman and Dennis Hedke, said they think some amendments might be in order if people really are finding it very difficult to obtain the documents they need to register to vote.
“I will be looking at it to see what effect it will have on the citizens,” Osterman said.
While he paid $14 and it took two weeks to acquire his birth certificate from Wyoming, Osterman said other people might have bigger problems getting the documents from other states.
“I’m listening to what they (the law’s opponents) have to say and taking into consideration what they have to say,” he said.
Hedke added that “with all the comments, we need to study it more carefully. There may be some justification for amendments to the law.”
However, he said he won’t advocate to change it unless someone supplies hard evidence that it’s putting an unreasonable burden on voters.
“I think suggesting we’re causing many, many people not to have the ability to vote is an incorrect assessment of the law,” he said.