TOPEKA, Kan. — A few weeks after moving to suburban Kansas City from the Seattle area, Aaron Belenky went online to register to vote. But he ended up joining thousands of other Kansas residents whose voting rights are in legal limbo because of the state's new proof-of-citizenship rule.
Starting this year, new voters aren't legally registered in Kansas until they've presented a birth certificate, passport or other document demonstrating U.S. citizenship. Kansas is among a handful of GOP-dominated states enacting rules to keep noncitizens from voting, but the most visible result is a growing pool of nearly 15,000 residents who've filled out registration forms but can't cast ballots.
Critics of the law point out that the number of people whose registrations aren't yet validated — and who are thus blocked from voting — far outpaces the few hundred ballots over the last 15 years that Kansas officials say were potentially tainted by irregularities. Preventing election fraud was often cited as the reason for enacting the law.
Belenky, a 39-year-old computer programmer, has his birth certificate and a passport but said he'd have to open and riffle through boxes in his Overland Park apartment to find them and comply with a rule that doesn't exist across most of the rest of the nation. And now, the prospective Kansas Democrat is irritated enough that he is ready to join a legal challenge.
Rather than respond to a July letter from election officials, Belenky allowed the American Civil Liberties Union to list him as one of three aggrieved voters in a notice sent this week to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach threatening a federal lawsuit unless the state stops enforcing the proof-of-citizenship requirement. Kobach dismissed the ACLU's criticism as unfounded and promised that the state wouldn't relent.
"I don't like anybody putting up barriers between me and a very basic right," Belenky said. "It's the state government saying that they don't believe me when I say I'm a citizen. I'm offended by that."
Arizona enacted the nation's first proof-of-citizenship law in 2004, but the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of it in June. Georgia, Kansas and Alabama followed, but only Kansas has compiled solid statewide numbers on blocked registrations.
Even though Kansas has nearly 1.8 million registered voters, another 15,000 is significant enough to decide a tight statewide race and typically more the total in a state House race.
The ACLU contends that Kansas is violating a longstanding federal election law requiring states to allow people to register at driver's license offices. It and groups such as the NAACP and the League of Women Voters contend that requiring proof of citizenship suppresses registrations among poor, minority and student voters who are more likely to support Democrats.
Kobach strongly disagrees that Kansas is violating federal law and said if the proof-of-citizenship rule is voter suppression, then "so is having registration in the first place." He said the ACLU and its allies oppose efforts to ensure "that only citizens are registered to vote."
Kansas election officials say many of the people on the "suspense" list filled out registration forms at a driver's license office but didn't have the papers to prove their citizenship. Critics of the law and some local election officials question whether state computer problems are preventing driver's license offices from processing information about people who have the correct documents. The Department of Revenue says there's no problem.
Kobach said the federal law led to a large number of people registering even though they never intend to vote and don't respond to entreaties to produce papers. Kobach said Kansas is lenient in allowing people to fill out registration forms but document their citizenship later.
"You have to create a suspense list if you're going to allow voters to take their time," he said.
Some prospective voters don't mind complying with the proof-of-citizenship rule.
Maj. Shawn Plankinton, who arrived from Washington in June for an assignment at Fort Leavenworth with the Kansas Army National Guard, said he's "100 percent in support." The 42-year-old registered at a Topeka-area address as a Republican and responded within a few days to a letter from the local election office. He took in his birth certificate, normally kept in a home safe.
He wasn't offended, he said. "I'm more a little relieved that there's some due diligence."
In seeking tighter election laws, Kobach suggested that reports of a few hundred irregularities over the previous 15 years represented a fraction of those that actually occurred.
Still, prosecutions remain uncommon.
Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel for the Democracy Project at the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York University-based institute critical of such laws, said they're enacted "on a wave of enthusiasm" without being properly vetted.
"The cure is worse than the disease," she says.
In Arizona's Maricopa County, home to about 1.9 million registered voters, more than 6,000 people on its registration rolls didn't have driver's licenses authenticated as of late July, which is usually attributed to not having proven their citizenship.
Registration Manager Jasper Altaha said only hundreds of registrations typically remain in suspense for six months. Then, Arizona officials can delete them.
"Usually, when a voter registers and really wants to register, they'll follow up," Altaha said.
But Kansas election officials can't delete registrations in suspense. In northeast Kansas, Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew said his mailings are getting only a handful of responses. Neighboring Johnson County also uses robocalls, but registration forms don't require telephone numbers.
And Election Commissioner Brian Newby worries, "These people are going to be there forever."