Kansas official takes active interest in Alaska elections

rmauer@adn.comJune 3, 2013 

Why has Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach taken such an active interest in Alaska's elections?

The Kansan, an adviser to Mitt Romney last year on immigration policies and a national figure in the Republican party's conservative wing, testified before the Alaska Legislature in support of a voter photo ID bill. He also recommended that Alaska join the "Kansas Project," a multi-state effort to look for duplicate voter registrations.

Alaska Natives say a photo ID rule would be a roadblock to voting in the Bush. A decline in turnout there, with its traditionally heavy Democratic vote, could affect the 2014 reelection hopes of U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat running in a Republican-leaning state. One of his potential rivals is Alaska's top election official, Republican Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell.

Treadwell says he doesn't support the voter ID bill, but Kobach says Treadwell was instrumental in getting him involved in promoting the Alaska legislation.

In an April statement to reporters that didn't mention Kobach or Kansas, Treadwell touted the cross-checking as having found 14 people suspected of "actually voting in both Alaska and another state" in 2012. Treadwell threatened to prosecute the voters if the allegations were confirmed.

Alaska elections director Gail Fenumiai recently said 12 of the 14 voters cited in Treadwell's April statement were wrongly identified as duplicate voters and actually voted only in Alaska. One name was believed to be a duplicate voter and has been turned over to the criminal division of the Alaska Department of Law for further investigation. Another election official, Shelly Growden, said the remaining one is not likely a duplicate voter.

In 2011, Kobach built political support for a voter ID bill in Kansas by alleging there had been many cases of voter fraud there.

Kobach told Alaska legislators that 235 Kansans had voted illegally between 1997 and 2010 but later he acknowledged that fewer than a dozen were ever prosecuted.

Kobach told the Daily News it was he who suggested to Treadwell that Alaska get involved in the Kansas project. "I personally talked to Mead Treadwell, your lieutenant governor, and encouraged him to join, and he did so," Kobach said.

And his testimony on the photo ID bill, Kobach said, was the result of a conversation with Treadwell.

"I spoke to Mead about it at one of our national conferences -- he mentioned that you guys were considering a photo ID law," Kobach said. "I said I'd be happy to share some of the experiences we've had in Kansas."

Treadwell, who said he doesn't support the Alaska bill because of the difficulty for Bush residents to get photo identification, said he didn't recall talking to Kobach about it.

"I meet with Kris a couple of times a year, and probably the last time I saw him was in late January or early February when NASS (National Association of Secretaries of State) was meeting," Treadwell said. "I certainly didn't make the connection between him and any (legislative) committee that had him testify. In fact, until you just told me, I didn't know he did testify."

After thinking about his conversations with Kobach, Treadwell later said he mentioned the Alaska photo ID bill in a roundtable discussion with other state officials -- including Kobach.

"I certainly announced that we had an ID bill pending, but I wasn't campaigning for it behind the scenes," Treadwell said. "If you're going to speculate that I was pushing the voter ID bill behind the scenes, it's not true."

Though he is Alaska's chief elections official, Treadwell has not testified for or against the ID bill, or submitted documents supporting or opposing it, according to the Legislature's website.

VILLAGES FACE EXTRA OBSTACLES

Photo ID measures are controversial across the country. Advocates say they help prevent fraud. Opponents say they make it more difficult for particular groups of people to vote: the elderly, students and the poor who don't own cars. In Alaska, the situation is compounded by the difficulty of getting to a Division of Motor Vehicles office in a regional hub like Nome or Bethel from a small village. Alaska doesn't even require a photograph on a driver's license in dozens of Bush communities.

Democratic activists say photo ID bills have the effect of disenfranchising more Democratic voters than Republicans. In his annual address to the Alaska Legislature this year, Begich criticized the bill as making it more difficult for Alaska Natives and Hispanics -- two traditional Democratic groups -- to vote.

Rep. Bob Lynn, an Anchorage Republican who is prime sponsor of the voter ID bill, said he wasn't trying to disenfranchise anyone. He dismissed opponents as complainers who should be happy they don't face the kind of obstacles voters do in places like Iraq.

"Terrorists have threatened to kill anyone who voted, but they voted anyway, and then these voters put ink in their finger to prove they had voted -- evidence that could have gotten them killed. Now that's a hassle, to say the least. Needing a photo ID to vote in Alaska wouldn't even come close to that," Lynn said when his State Affairs Committee first heard the bill in February.

Lynn's bill, House Bill 3, passed its two House committees last session and was awaiting floor action when the Legislature adjourned in April. It will be on the agenda in January when the Legislature convenes for the second half of its two-year term.

Under Lynn's bill, a voter without a photo ID could present two other kinds of identification like a birth certificate and tribal card. Unlike the Kansas law, the proposed law doesn't provide for free voter picture IDs.

The bill does allow for two election officials to waive the identification requirement if they know the voter and are willing to sign the voter roll to that effect. Current law allows the identification requirement to be waived if a single election official knows the voter and doesn't require the official to sign the roll.

With a history of discriminating against Alaska Native voters, Alaska is one of nine states, mostly in the South, required by the U.S. Voting Rights Act to get advance clearance from the Justice Department before making any changes in voting procedure. Jeffrey Mittman, then executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, testified in February that the voter ID bill would be considered discriminatory against Bush residents and would certainly fail to win approval.

But the Parnell administration is attacking Alaska's pre-clearance requirement under the Voting Rights Act on two fronts: It is supporting an Alabama county's case in the U.S. Supreme Court directly challenging that aspect of the law, and it has filed its own lawsuit. By the time the Legislature convenes in January, the Voting Rights Act may no longer be an obstacle to House Bill 3.

MOST FRAUD CLAIMS FALSE

Like most states, the Kansas secretary of state is an elected position. Kobach ran for the office in 2010 pledging to combat voter fraud. During his campaign, he claimed that 1,966 dead people were registered to vote in his state and gave the example of one Alfred K. Brewer, a Republican in Sedgwick County with a birthday listed as Jan. 1, 1900.

The Wichita Eagle followed up on Kobach's assertion. It caught up with Brewer, who was actually 78, raking leaves at home.

"I don't think this is heaven, not when I'm raking leaves," he told the Eagle reporter. It turned out Kobach had confused Brewer with his father, who had the same name and had died in 1996.

Kobach continued to push the issue after taking office, asking the Kansas Legislature to pass a voter ID bill in 2011. The Eagle continued to check his numbers and found that most cases of voting fraud and irregularities in Wichita's Sedgwick County were "groundless" or honest mistakes by voters or their families.

Several were elderly voters who forgot they had asked for absentee ballots and then tried to vote in the regular election. Two legal non-citizen residents were found to have cast votes illegally. One was charged with a misdemeanor. The other submitted proof of her vote with her application for U.S. citizenship, the newspaper said, mistakenly believing it would improve her chances by demonstrating her commitment to community and democracy.

Kobach said two fraudulent votes were too many, even if innocently cast, because they canceled out the votes of legitimate voters. He also acknowledged that many duplicate names turn out to be just that -- not duplicate voters.

"You'd be amazed how many people have same name, same date of birth, in a country of 300 million," he said in an interview.

His bill passed the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature in 2011.

But Kansas voting rights activist Louis Goseland said Kobach's efforts were misguided.

"It's a solution looking for a problem," Goseland said in a recent telephone interview. "There's no way to justify making voting more difficult when it's completely unnecessary. It is voter suppression. If you're making the process of voting more difficult, it serves no constructive purpose."

Kobach testified by phone at the Rep. Lynn's House State Affairs Committee on Feb. 21.

"I want to really strongly urge you to pass HB 3," Kobach said. "I have read it. And I think it's a good bill."

Kobach told Alaska legislators that voting fraud is real. He said he had 235 "credible reports" of voter fraud in his state between 1997 and 2011.

According to statistics posted on Kobach's official website, in that same period, some 10 million votes were cast by Kansans, not counting local elections. The 235 incidents represent 0.002 percent of votes cast.

In an interview, Kobach said 10 or fewer of those cases were actually prosecuted, or 0.0001 percent of the total vote.

In 2012, even after a $300,000 advertising campaign to alert Kansans to the new law, 838 Kansans were blocked from voting a regular ballot because they didn't bring a photo ID to the polls -- 0.07 percent of the statewide vote that year. In his testimony, Kobach described that number as a "very tiny percentage," though it was many times greater than the number of fraud cases prosecuted over the previous 14 years.

The Kansas voter ID law, like the Alaska bill, allows a voter without an ID to cast a questioned ballot. In Kansas, if a voter returns with a proper ID before the ballots are canvassed, usually a week after the election, the ballot is counted. Kobach said 306 Kansans returned with ID and their votes were counted.

The remaining 532 abandoned their votes. Of those, Kobach said, about 500 were found to have Kansas driver's licenses, but by not bringing their licenses to the polls, their votes didn't count.

'MAKE SURE EVERYONE VOTES'

Even if Alaskans were allowed to vote a questioned ballot and the ballot was eventually counted, it's like a "little fence" in front of a person's right to vote, a former election worker testified when Lynn's bill reached the House Judiciary Committee in April.

"These are citizens who work a really long day and our whole point of being there is make sure that everybody votes," said the retired election worker, Mary Graham of Juneau. "One of the points that keeps being made -- this won't make anybody not vote because you can always vote a questioned ballot. My analogy for questioned ballot is now I have to go to the principal because I forgot my pencil. It's not the normal flow when you're standing in line and you get your ballot and you get to put it in the machine. You've got to go over to the side, you've got to have an election worker with you, you've got to fill out all the paperwork."

After hearing Graham and about six other witnesses speak against the bill in the Judiciary committee, Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, withdrew her co-sponsorship of the bill, a rare event in the Legislature. In a text message earlier this month, she said she stopped supporting the bill because of the difficulties it would impose on Native voters.

Kobach said his goal was not to disenfranchise voters but "to protect the legitimacy of the election process."

"I think the way we should approach this issue is you should try to make it easy to vote but hard to cheat," Kobach said.

But a 2006 study by the Brennan Center for Justice of the New York University School of Law found that as many as 11 percent of the voting age U.S. population has no government-issued photo ID, with higher percentages among the elderly, minorities and the poor. While citizens between 18 and 24 usually had a photo ID, the study found that 18 percent of the time, their identification had the wrong current address or name.

"You're not just making it difficult for these people to vote, you're making it impossible for these people to vote -- not because they've done anything, not because they lost their right to vote, simply because they don't have a picture ID, which is something they do not need to work, live and exist," said Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center. "It's a hugely disenfranchising mechanism."

Gaskins said she agrees that protecting the integrity of elections is critical but the type of fraud prevented by photo identification is negligible.

"The challenge is to line up the solution with an actual problem, and voter ID is a solution to a non-problem," she said. "You're cutting off access to people's votes without evidence that there is fraud."

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