KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Jo French rolls down the windows in her old Ford Focus with Rod Stewart on the radio, she feels like she is in a convertible.
Her efforts to obtain a Kansas driver’s license and keep the wind in her hair led French on a journey before an election review board and eventually to the witness stand, where she testified Monday in federal court about her efforts to prove she is a citizen.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, defending himself and the state’s voter registration law, called French to testify about his office’s willingness to help people who struggle to produce a birth certificate or other documents when registering to vote. French supports restrictions that prevent voter fraud but said she felt hurt after her trip to get a driver’s license upon moving from Denver to Osage City in 2015. If she wanted to cast a vote in the 2016 presidential election, she learned, she would need to produce a long-lost birth certificate.
“There’s nothing like being an American citizen and being able to vote,” French said. “This is how you get laws done.”
Born at home to a midwife in 1941 in Arkansas, French said she picked 300 pounds of cotton per day to pay her way through school. She worked as a teacher for 13 and a half years, then gave it up for a lack of patience and began a series of odd jobs, frequently moving.
She supposed she burned the only copy of her birth certificate in the trash at some point, and paid $8 to learn Arkansas had no record of her birth.
That’s when Eric Rucker, assistant secretary of state, stepped in to assist. Under his direction, French offered the note of her arrival in her family Bible and secured her baptism document from a church in Arkansas.
An American Civil Liberties Union attorney asked French to confirm statements she made to the Topeka Capital-Journal after being cleared.
“I was working to just be a citizen,” French said in July 2016. “And I thought, ‘I don’t look funny. I don’t talk funny. I’ve been here all of my life.’ And I just couldn’t imagine having to go through this procedure to prove that I live here and that I can vote.”
She told the ACLU she thought she was being funny.
Monday was the fifth day in a trial that challenges Kobach to prove widespread claims of voter fraud. The two sides argued over evidence showing Kobach’s office helped register six voters through the review process. ACLU complained the records weren’t made available before trial, and Kobach’s office wasn’t able to locate records for one of the examples.
Neil Steiner, an attorney working with ACLU, said Kobach’s difficulty in locating records “further shows the burdens of this law.”
In other testimony, ACLU’s Angela Liu launched an attack on methodology used by Kobach expert witness Steven Camarota, the research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for limited immigration.
Camarota defended a blog he wrote in January, in which he said most federal crimes by noncitizens are committed by illegal immigrants, and acknowledged his use of the term “professional ethnic.” In an interview later, CIS executive director Mark Krikorian said a “professional ethnic” is someone whose job is being a representative of an ethnic group.
Declaring Kansas “beat the trend” in 2014, Camarota presented numbers showing a slight increase in voter registrations from 2010 to 2014 while numbers went down in other states and nationwide. His report was offered as evidence that a requirement to show proof of citizenship didn’t have an effect on registrations or voter turnout.
But under questioning from Liu, Camarota said he didn’t control for any factors that could affect rates in different states, such as age, race, registration drives or competitiveness of races.
When Mark Johnson, an attorney representing a student who refused to provide proof of citizenship, took over questioning, Camarota couldn’t say whether former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback faced a serious challenge from Democrat Paul Davis in 2014. He also didn’t know about independent Greg Orman’s challenge to U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts or efforts to unseat Kansas Supreme Court justices.
Camarota defended his analysis, saying he simply wanted to compare rate changes in Kansas to rate changes in other states.
At times, Kobach, Liu and Camarota shouted for dominance as Camarota fought to explain yes-or-no answers. U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson told them to stop talking over each other out of respect for the court reporter.
“She can only take down one voice at a time, or we’re going to kill her,” Robinson said, “and then I’m going to kill everyone else.”
Robinson later admonished another Kobach expert witness, Jesse Richman, who teaches political science at Old Dominion University, after he called her decision to limit his testimony “ridiculous.”
“You don’t say anything unless there’s a question posed to you,” Robinson said. “You’re not here to trash the plaintiff. You’re not here to argue with me.”