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Keeping an eye on voter turnout

Secretary of State Kris Kobach has touted improving election administration in Kansas since his candidacy in 2010. So his office's lack of response to the recent Pew Charitable Trusts Elections Performance Index report is part shocking, part disturbing. In areas such as clarifying what happens to ballots that cannot be counted or cast via electronic technology (also known as provisional ballots) by absentees, or by Kansas military personnel assigned out-of-state; improving the integrity of the registration process; and providing the resources to effectively audit and correct electoral processes in the state, the Pew report rates Kansas in the bottom 15 percent of all states.

Using an exhaustive set of measures, Pew ranked every state on election administration from 2008 to 2012. The good news for Kansas is our EPI increased by 3 percent from 2008 to 2012. The bad news: That was the lowest in the nation, and Kansas emerged from the study ranked 43rd of the 50 states. How has an administration so devoutly committed to improving voting processes in the state managed to become one of the "nation's lowest performers," according to the study?

Most of the troubles can be attributed to Kansas having the third-largest increases in both rejected provisional ballots (voters without identification or other concerns on Election Day) and not voting at all due to problems with registration or absentee-ballot issues. These declines offset improvement on indicators such as online voter registration. But what these problems say about the state of Kansas' election laws is in sharp contrast to the rosy picture of participation presented by Kobach.

Kobach has become a national touchstone over voting rights and process. Kobach's agenda focuses on requiring citizenship proof to register to vote. Registration is the most significant impediment to voting, so changing registration laws affects turnout greatly. Kobach believes illegal immigrants are corrupting the vote with rampant, unreported fraud and the citizenship requirement is the least restrictive means to accomplish that goal. The issue is so important to Kobach, he took a case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In March, the court ruled Kansas can require proof of citizenship added on to generic federal voter registration forms over the objection of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The decision was a big win for Kobach and his allies. But does it make elections more dependable and accurate?

Spending time and money defending Kansas' effort to add a citizenship requirement to registration shouldn't preclude a state's chief elections officer from supervising military and absentee ballots. Why would an administration so fervent about fair and accurate voting under-perform compared to other states in not requiring post-election audits and mail-in ballot rejections? Both factors were ranked in the bottom 10 states in the Pew study. Of all criteria, Kansas ranked best on disability or illness-related voting problems, but there ranked only 21st. Kansas failed to rate in the top 20 percent of any category analyzed. Worst of all, in terms of completely reporting voter data, Kansas rated a lowly 37th. Why have we fallen behind other states? Turnout, provisional ballots cast and rejected, and registration problems all worsened from 2010 when Kobach succeeded Ron Thornburgh, to 2012, the first election his office oversaw. Research by my Insight Kansas colleague Michael Smith, Kevin Anderson of Eastern Illinois University, and me shows voter turnout drops more in states where these laws have passed. The drops are a fraction of a percent for simple photo ID laws, but more than 1 percent for birth-certificate requirements. They are even worse in the poorest counties, affecting Republicans as much as Democrats.

The 2014 elections are seven months away. For Kobach's message of electoral integrity to hold, especially when he is up for re-election, it is imperative he close the election administration gap that has emerged during the first term of his administration.

Chapman Rackaway is a professor of political science at Fort Hays State University.