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Judge: Kansas Must Count Disputed State, Local Race Votes

Carla Eckels
KMUW/File Photo

A Shawnee County judge has ruled that 17,000 Kansans who registered to vote at the DMV will be able to vote in all races in the primary election.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach had previously put a rule in place saying those Kansans could only vote in federal races because they hadn’t provided proof of citizenship required under Kansas law. Judge Larry Hendricks says Kobach doesn’t have the authority to do that. Kobach says the decision weakens the state’s voter registration law.

“What today’s ruling does is it essentially knocks a huge loophole in that law for about 17,000 people who will not have to provide proof of citizenship like the rest of us,” Kobach said.

Sophia Lakin, one of the ACLU attorneys who argued the case on Friday, said she’s “extremely relieved” for the Kansans who will now be able to vote in all races.

Voting has already been underway in Kansas for more than two weeks. Judge Hendricks said there was nothing he could do to help voters who have already cast ballots with the understanding that they could only vote in federal races.

Hendricks said there's still much at stake for affected Kansans who haven't yet voted.

"Losing one’s vote is an irreparable harm in my opinion and in my ruling here today,” Hendricks said. "They will never be able to recast their votes."

A federal judge ruled last month that people who registered at the DMV but didn’t prove their citizenship should be allowed to vote, at least in federal races. Kobach's rule said their votes in state and local elections would not be counted.

Credit Beth Golay / KMUW
Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman speaks to reporters outside the county courthouse after Friday's ruling blocking Kansas' voting law.

The latest ruling will affect about 4,200 voters in Sedgwick County who registered at a DMV without providing proof of citizenship. Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman said Friday that she’s been instructed by the state to have all of the affected voters cast full provisional ballots.

Lehman says a full court hearing on the issue is expected to take place after the primary election.

More from AP:

Kansas must count potentially thousands of votes in state and local races from people who've registered without providing citizenship documents, a county judged ruled on Friday.

The order from Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks came only four days before Tuesday's primary election. Hendricks blocked an administrative rule from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of three prospective voters earlier this month, a week after a state board allowed Kobach to impose the rule temporarily — through the November election — without a public hearing. It applies to people who register to vote at state motor vehicle offices without providing proof of their U.S. citizenship as required by a 2013 state law.

The affected voters were to receive provisional ballots to be reviewed later, and county election officials are directed to count only their votes for federal offices, not state and local ones. Ahead of the primary, about 17,600 people registered at motor vehicle offices without providing citizenship papers, and the rule could apply to 50,000 people in November.

Kobach's action was a response to a federal judge's ruling in May in another lawsuit that people who register at motor vehicle offices are entitled to vote in federal races even if they've not met the proof-of-citizenship requirement.

The ACLU had argued that doing so violates the affected voters' constitutional rights by treating them unequally. Its solution was to allow their votes in all races to be counted.

Kobach, a conservative Republican, has championed the state's proof-of-citizenship requirement as an anti-election fraud measure. He argues that in complying with the federal judge's order, he's still required to enforce the proof-of-citizenship law as much as possible.

Critics of proof-of-citizenship requirements say they suppress voter turnout — particularly among young and minority voters — far more than they combat fraud. Alabama, Arizona and Georgia have similar requirements, but Kansas has gone the furthest to enforce its law.

The Kansas proof-of-citizenship law and its enforcement have been the subject of multiple federal and state-court lawsuits.

A federal law requires states to allow people to register at motor vehicle offices when they're obtaining or renewing driver's licenses. States can impose "necessary" registration restrictions, but the federal judge ruled in May that people document their citizenship by signing a statement on the registration form, facing criminal penalties if it's not true.

Stephen Koranda is the managing editor of the Kansas News Service, based at KCUR. He has nearly 20 years of experience in public media as a reporter and editor.
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