Excited to participate in the presidential election, more than 22,000 people in Kansas applied to register to vote in a three-week period in February just days before the state presidential caucuses. It was a reassuring display of democracy — except that two-thirds of that group remain officially held “in suspense,” unregistered and unable to vote. This is because they have not met the draconian requirement of the state law, approved by the Republican Legislature, that they provide a passport, birth certificate or naturalization papers.
This electoral limbo amounts to crude voter suppression, and no one seems certain whether all qualified citizens in Kansas will be allowed to vote in the primary election in August for state offices and in the November general election. Court challenges are underway, with the American Civil Liberties Union documenting what it calls the “chaos” wrought by the state law. It stands contrary to federal law, which allows people to register when they get a driver’s license or state ID and attest, under criminal threat of perjury, that they are citizens.
That’s enough in most areas, but not in Kansas, where the damage from the registration law has been particularly alarming during a presidential campaign in which young adults have been enthusiastic about making their voices heard. Kansans ages 18 to 29 make up more than 58 percent of the applicants now “in suspense” — a situation that should appall any American politician hoping for a fresh generation engaged in democracy. It has become clear, though, that the goal of voter suppression laws shamelessly championed by Republicans is to hobble the young and minority voters, who tend to favor the Democratic Party.
The registration law took effect in 2013 as the Republican lawmakers voiced familiar but widely debunked warnings of rampant voter fraud. The issue has been driven by the Kansas secretary of state, Kris Kobach, a conservative firebrand who pushed the Legislature last year to give him Javert-like authority to prosecute voter fraud. He talked of more than 100 potential cases, but so far has secured just one conviction in nine months, demonstrating the minuscule threat that voter fraud presents.
Yet the obsession continues. Brian Newby, also from Kansas and a close ally of Mr. Kobach’s, used his position as the new executive director of the United States Election Assistance Commission to bypass commission members and unilaterally change the federal voter registration form in Kansas to mandate the same harsh documentation of citizenship.