By Bryan Lowry
Kansas City Star
Four days after a federal judge threw out a Kansas voting restriction, 72 newly naturalized Americans became registered voters in the same courthouse where the landmark voting rights trial took place.
“That’s the reason why I became a citizen: to be able to vote,” said Patricia Mascote, who owns a convenience store in Overland Park and has lived in the United States for nearly 30 years after emigrating from Mexico.
If Mascote’s naturalization ceremony had taken place just a week earlier, Mascote could have been required to submit her naturalization documents to complete the registration process.
Instead, all she and the other newly registered voters had to do was write down their names and addresses and attest to their new status as citizens.
“It takes five minutes or less, and it’s done,” said Christine Hutchins, a member of the Johnson County chapter of the League of Women Voters, who oversaw the registration of new citizens Friday at the Robert J. Dole Federal Courthouse in Kansas City, Kan.
The League of Women Voters has been at war for the past five years with a Kansas law that required prospective voters to provide proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or naturalization documents, to register.
Now that a federal judge has ruled the law unconstitutional, the League and other groups hoping to register new voters expect to see the state’s voter rolls grow by thousands before November, when Kansas chooses a new governor.
The man who designed the law, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, could be on the ballot if he prevails in the GOP primary in August.
Kobach’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In the past, he has repeatedly disputed the notion that the requirement has hampered voter registration.
“I understand Kobach needs to take classes on the law again. It makes you think,” said Manuel Novas-Garcia, a voter who became naturalized Friday and was aware of the judge’s order in the case.
Kobach’s office is appealing the ruling, but he has said he will complete the six hours of training on civil procedure the judge ordered him to take.
Novas-Garcia, who emigrated from Spain to attend Kansas State University, says he won’t miss an election now that he’s a voter.
“The motto of this country is ‘No taxation without representation.’ I’ve been a taxpayer for six years, and it was time to join the club of voters,” said Novas-Garcia, a Spanish teacher in the Blue Valley school district.
The Sedgwick County Election Office began sending representatives to naturalization ceremonies in Wichita after the law went into effect — a point that was often made by Kobach during the trial.
“We did start attending as a result of the law but will continue to do so from here forward. In Sedgwick County, we can have as many as three ceremonies a week,” said Sedgwick County Election Commissioner Tabitha Lehman, a Kobach appointee and a witness in the trial.
Lehman said that after the ruling, her office will no longer ask for the naturalization documents when it attends the ceremonies.
“Because we did not start attending naturalization ceremonies until after the … law was in effect, I can’t really speak to if it was more difficult. We have hand-held scanners that we utilize to scan naturalization documents at the ceremonies so it was fairly seamless for us, probably just took a little more time,” she said in an email.
Many Democrats point to the proof-of-citizenship requirement as a factor in Democrat Paul Davis’ defeat in the 2014 election when he narrowly lost to former Gov. Sam Brownback.
“When you’re trying to get someone who doesn’t normally vote to vote and then there’s this extra hurdle, a lot of people just won’t go through with it,” said Brooklynne Mosley, who worked as a regional field director on Davis’ campaign.
“It really affected our numbers,” said Mosley, who now serves as the deputy executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party.
Davis, who is now running for the U.S. House in Kansas’ 2nd District, said the court ruling will make it easier for campaigns to get new voters to the polls.
“I think that’s definitely true, and our campaign has been registering people to vote,” he said.
“I think it also is going to give people the confidence that if they register, they are going to be able to vote … because I think a lot of people looked at what Kris Kobach was doing and they were concerned about ‘is my vote going to be counted.’”
A year after his defeat in the race for governor, Davis was part of a group of attorneys who filed a lawsuit in federal court against Kobach’s office.
That lawsuit, which challenged the law on constitutional grounds, was later joined with a separate case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in last week’s decision.
Court orders from both the state and federal level prevented the law from being fully enforced during the 2016 election, but there were still thousands of potential voters who were blocked from voting depending on the registration method they used.