By: Emma Dolgos
In May 2017, President Trump appointed Kris Kobach, Kansas Secretary of State, to a new Commission on Election Integrity to assist in the study of voter fraud, improper voter registration, voter suppression, and other voting irregularities. Just one month later, Kobach announced his campaign for governor of Kansas. Kobach’s public statements—both as Vice-Chair of the Commission and a gubernatorial candidate—have led to increased attention on Kansas’ state election laws, particularly the laws related to fraudulent voting.
While a number of civil rights groups have been targeting proof of citizenship laws in Kansas as they affect immigrants to the United States, few groups have given equal attention to proof of residence laws that affect current American citizens. The Kansas constitution requires a voter to reside in the state of Kansas. Further, Kansas Statutes Annotated § 25-407 states that residency encompasses a person’s place of habitation in which he or she has the “intention of returning.” The law, in its current form, hinges on the intent of each individual voter, which is arguably challenging for the state to disprove.
Proponents of this proof of residency law, including Kobach, argue that the law protects state elections from the undue influence of out-of-state voters. Kobach, in his criticism of New Hampshire elections, argues that voters have not met the legal requirements to obtain a state driver’s license and are therefore nonresidents of the state. These nonresidents do not have as much as an interest in or attachment to the state. The argument follows that nonresident votes constitute voting fraud because they are cast by ineligible voters and because they cancel out residents’ votes. This mirrors Kobach’s argument about Kansas’ proof of citizenship laws; he contends that “[e]very time an alien votes, it cancels out the vote of a U.S. citizen.” If too many nonresidents vote, they will have a disproportionate influence on state electoral outcomes.
However, opponents of Kansas’ residency requirement argue that the law is not tailored enough to solve the nonresident, fraudulent voting problem. While the law requires an intent to return to Kansas, it does not provide for a verification method. The County Election Officer determines whether an address is in located in the voting district, but the officer does not verify if the address corresponds to the specific voter. Election officers do not even have to ask for paperwork—deeds, leases, bills, and so on—connecting voters to a residence. Moreover, Kansas’ voter identification laws permit a voter to present a driver’s license from Kansas or from another state within the United states. Thus, election officials could not rely on a voter’s identification to indicate his or her intent to remain in Kansas for residency purposes. This dilemma seemingly makes the intent of a resident unprovable. People can openly abuse the law by claiming intent to return to an address “they no longer own and no longer have any legal right to occupy.”
These deficiencies in administration of the law begs the question, what is necessary to demonstrate an intent to return to Kansas? Perhaps Kansas should follow the lead of New Hampshire, the very state Kobach criticized for its ineffective residency laws. To give teeth to the law, the Kansas legislature could consider adding a provision requiring voters to provide documentation tying the voter to the address. For college students, documentation might include proof of enrollment or a “room-and-board” receipt rather than a utility bill or deed. Further, a backup mechanism would need to be set up for those voters who could not produce documentation at the time of registration.
There are legitimate concerns with ineligible voters canceling the power of valid voters in both state and federal elections. While attention predominantly goes to noncitizen voting laws, it is important to remember that valid voters can be harmed by residents from other states voting in Kansas or by residents from one county voting in another. A resident from Kansas likely would not want a New York resident choosing their representatives. That New York resident doesn’t even “go” to Kansas in the sense that she arguably does not share the same interests and concerns as a Kansan.
Since Kobach has drawn national attention to nonresident fraud problems in New Hampshire, it seems imperative that he—and the Kansas legislature—seriously discuss the future of their own proof of residence provision.