LAWRENCE — Secretary of State Kris Kobach and a law professor squared off Thursday to contemplate virtue and evil of voter identification laws in Kansas designed to thwart election corruption.
Kobach, a former law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, matched wits with Mark Johnson, who teaches at the University of Kansas law school. They focused on whether requiring a photograph ID as a condition of casting a ballot was justified to shield integrity of the state’s voting system, but both raised issues about a statute making people prove citizenship to register.
The duo sharply disagreed on the question of whether people living in the country illegally would attempt to infect the outcome of political contests by choosing Election Day to step away from an underground existence.
“The alleged phenomenon of noncitizen voting is a complete red herring,” Johnson said. “Who is going to show up at the polls to vote knowing they may be caught?”
Kobach, who has frequently noted the danger of people in the country illegally trying to vote, said local voting stations weren’t threatening places to the undocumented. Federal Immigration, Customs and Enforcement agents weren’t on the prowl for improperly documented residents at voting stations, he said.
“You’d be amazed how many green card holders who want U.S. citizenship are told by someone, ‘You should go vote,’ ” Kobach said.
It was on this point two sign-wielding protesters stepped into the conversation.
Suezanne Bishop, a third-year law student at KU, said she was disappointed Kobach had consistently “dehumanized undocumented individuals and taken an anti-immigration stance in state and federal forums.”
Her signs: “You’re the fraud” and “Who would Jesus deport?”
The movement to adopt state mandates related to photo ID and proof of citizenship picked up momentum following the contested 2000 presidential election. It was unclear for five weeks whether Vice President Al Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush won. Gore collected 500,000 more national votes than Bush, but Bush captured the Electoral College once he was declared the victor in Florida by 500 votes.
After Kobach was elected the state’s top election official in 2010, he pushed the Republican-led Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback to examine voting security. His advocacy prompted adoption of the SAFE Act in 2011.
The law featured picture ID for voting, citizenship for registration and provisions requiring signature authentication on mail-in ballots.
He said the Obama administration was responsible for orchestrating a broad effort to undermine state laws such as those established in Kansas.
“The Justice Department and the Obama administration ... decided this was going to be a wedge issue,” Kobach said. “They started attacking voter ID as somehow racially biased.”
The citizenship and voter ID elements in Kansas law have faced constitutional challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union and Kobach are engaged in a legal conflict in Shawnee County District Court regarding the citizenship requirement. Kobach also has proposed deleting approximately 32,000 pending registration applications for failure to properly document citizenship status on the form.
Skeptics of Kobach’s election reform agenda have tried to make a case the secretary of state intended to suppress participation in elections among elderly, poor and minority voters often aligned with the Democratic Party. Kobach is the former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.
Johnson said lack of evidence depicting meaningful election wrongdoing in Kansas suggested Kobach’s political quest could be an enemy of the good.
“Do we want our elections to be perfect? In theory, yes,” Johnson said. “The system in the United States is very, very good. Do we want to lose that? Do we want to put that at risk by seeking the perfect?”