TOPEKA, Kansas — An American Civil Liberties Union attorney argued Wednesday that Kansas law doesn't give Secretary of State Kris Kobach the power to remove more than 30,000 names from the state's voter registration rolls, and another critic accused him of partisan motives.
The Republican secretary of state dismissed both arguments. Supporters of a new administrative rule proposed by Kobach said it would help him administer the state's proof-of-citizenship requirement for new voters and would make running elections more orderly and efficient.
The rule proposed by Kobach earlier this year would require county election officials to cancel incomplete voter registrations after 90 days, forcing the prospective voters to apply again. About 36,000 registrations are incomplete and roughly 32,000 of them, or 87 percent, because people haven't yet provided papers documenting their U.S. citizenship.
Only about 4,200 of all the incomplete registrations were submitted within the past 90 days.
The proposed rule recently drew criticism from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose campaign tweeted that it was "a targeted attack on voting rights." Kobach responded on Facebook that the rule was being criticized by "left-wing knuckleheads" and Clinton "is getting her pantsuit in a twist over nothing."
The attorney general's office and Department of Administration have approved the rule, but Kobach is required by law to have a public hearing and consider possible changes. His office said it has received more than 400 written comments.
Kobach did not attend the hearing and had his elections chief preside. But the secretary of state said later that he hopes the comments will be reviewed in a few weeks, so that the rule can take effect Oct. 2.
"I think that the people who would not be able to vote because of this are largely an unrepresented group who in most cases are believed to vote Democratically," Sonja Willms, leader of the Topeka chapter of the National Organization for Women, said during the hearing.
Doug Bonney, chief counsel for the ACLU of Kansas, said the group — which is already suing Kobach in state court over another registration policy — would consider challenging the rule in court. Bonney said while the proof-of-citizenship law gives Kobach the authority to make rules to administer it, the statute doesn't give him the authority to purge voter rolls.
"He's making this up out of whole cloth," Bonney said after the hearing.
Kobach called the accusation of a partisan motive "ridiculous," saying it assumes Democratic voters are less likely than others to complete their registrations. He also said it's not a substantial burden for people to have to fill out another registration form.
"That takes a total of 30 seconds," Kobach said.
Shawnee County Election Commissioner Andrew Howell, a Kobach appointee, said his office spends a "great deal of time" attempting to contact voters with incomplete registrations.
"A deadline actually makes it easier for us to do our job," Howell said. "It's more affordable."
The proof-of-citizenship requirement took effect in 2013, and Kobach championed it as a way to combat election fraud by keeping non-citizens from voting, particularly immigrants in the U.S. illegally. Critics contend the requirement suppresses turnout and several suggested during the hearing that Kobach wants to purge voter registration lists to hide an embarrassing problem.
Other critics said three months is not enough time for some prospective voters to track down birth certificates from other states.
But Jack Sossoman, a Topeka resident and tea party activist, said the rule would help Kansas enforce the proof-of-citizenship requirement.
"Yes, people do have the right to vote, but it's qualified. It's qualified on U.S. citizenship," he said.
Kansas secretary of state's office: http://www.kssos.org/ .
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .