Kansas took a giant leap backwards this week by enacting one of the harshest voter ID laws in the country. Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill into law Monday that will require voters to present photo ID at the polls as well as proof of citizenship in order to register. Kansas has joined a small group of outliers in passing such a retrograde law. Thirty-two state legislatures have introduced similar photo ID bills this year in what appears to be a nationwide coordinated effort to erect new barriers to voting. Only two other states in the union—Indiana and Georgia—refuse to hand a regular ballot to a voter who lacks photo ID without exception or alternative.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, well-known as the principal author of Arizona's extreme racial profiling law, S.B. 1070, was the driving force behind this legislation. Kobach's voter ID law undermines our country's strides in expanding the fundamental right to vote to be more inclusive of historically marginalized groups like racial minorities, low-income voters, the disabled, and senior citizens. Kobach claims that requiring ID is necessary in order to combat widespread voter registration by undocumented immigrants in Kansas.
Yet, no such evidence has ever been presented to support his claims of rampant fraud. In fact, records released in 2009 revealed only seven cases of alleged electoral fraud—only one of which was prosecuted—in the previous five years.
A Brennan Center for Justice study shows that as many as 7 percent of U.S. citizens do not have ready access to citizenship documents, and approximately 11 percent of U.S. citizens—more than 21 million individuals—lack government-issued photo ID. The new law offers free birth certificates only to Kansas-born residents—all residents born out-of-state would bear the financial burden and trouble of contacting their home states to attain birth certificates to meet this requirement. The costs associated with meeting the new law's requirements are especially burdensome to low-income voters.
And while there's no cost to a native Kansan to obtain a birth certificate, it's not free to the Kansas taxpayers, who will be footing the bill to enforce this unnecessary law. Demos, a voting rights group, has estimated the new law will cost Kansas millions, and not the suggested $69,500 over two years. For a state already facing a $492 million shortfall, Kansas certainly seems eager to drive its deficit even higher.
A pitiful 41 percent of eligible persons nationwide voted in last year's general election. Gov. Brownback and Secretary Kobach apparently think that number is too high and seem to prefer a long-rejected vision of American democracy, one in which voting is a privilege secured, not by citizenship, but by jumping through hoops. Theirs is an extremely nearsighted view of just how difficult it will be for remote, marginalized, and under-resourced individuals to obtain a valid photo ID and evidence of citizenship.
State legislators should be trying to minimize voter confusion and eliminate hurdles to the ballot; they should not be putting more money and paperwork between a citizen and their fundamental right to vote.