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To register to vote in Kansas, you have to prove you are a U.S. citizen. That requirement has held up tens of thousands of registrations, and it's produced an enormous list of would-be voters in electoral limbo because they haven't shown a birth certificate or passport. Now the top elections official in Kansas wants that list purged, and as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, that's leading to a fight.
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Like a lot of people, Cody Keener registered to vote for the first time at the division of motor vehicles.
CODY KEENER: I went in to renew my driver's license, and I registered to vote at the same time.
MORRIS: Keener is 21, comes from a long line of Kansans, so he figured he was set to both drive and vote. But he was wrong. He recently learned that his registration is incomplete 'cause he hasn't shown proof that he's a U.S. citizen.
KEENER: It's very discouraging to young people. I'm a full-time student. I work anywhere from 20 to 30 hours a week.
MORRIS: Keener says digging up the documentation to complete the registration would be a hassle. It turns out his wife is also on the state's list of suspended voters along with more than 36,000 other people, a group that would just about fill a major league baseball stadium.
MARGE AHRENS: And when you have that many people who didn't finish their registration, you know something is the matter with the law.
MORRIS: That's Marge Ahrens with the League of Women Voters here. She says the list has exploded since 2013 when the state started requiring proof of citizenship. It's ballooned into by far the largest of its type in the country. Unlike Arizona and Georgia, other states that require proof of citizenship to vote, Kansas has never imposed a time limit on completing a voter registration.
KRIS KOBACH: Looking at the other states, we realized that we should have had this time limit in the first place.
MORRIS: Kansas secretary of state Kris Kobach is at a firing range in suburban Kansas City for a meeting of the local Young Republicans club. He presents himself as kind of an elections lawman guarding the political process from people bent on hijacking it.
KOBACH: There is a problem with aliens getting on our voter rolls. And every time you have a close election, there is a significant possibility that a handful of votes cast by non-citizens may have swung the election.
MORRIS: Kobach claims the state's elections are now the most secure in the nation. But Ahrens says it's more of a model for how to discourage voting.
AHRENS: It has intimidated the public about the vote. It has essentially kept 36,000 off the vote.
MORRIS: A trickle of people are completing their incomplete registrations and joining the voter rolls, but many others are slowly being scrubbed from the list because of Kobach's new rule allowing elections officials to delete incomplete registrations 90 days after they're first filed.
KOBACH: This is not an undue burden on anyone, this 90-day rule, giving a person three months to prove up their citizenship after they start the process. And if a person still doesn't do it within 90 days, they still have a chance to just fill out the card all over again and give themselves another 90 days.
MORRIS: But deleting the voter registration applications raises legal issues.
PAUL DAVIS: This is where there is a collision between state law and federal law.
MORRIS: Paul Davis is representing Cody Keener in a federal lawsuit challenging Kobach's 90-day rule. He asserts that voter registrations at the DMV are protected.
DAVIS: Because under the National Voter Registration Act, those voters like Cody Keener are federal voters, and they cannot be removed from a voter list.
MORRIS: Whether or not people who register at the DMV in Kansas without showing proof of citizenship are federal voters or Kansas voters or just not voters at all may not be settled before next year's elections. For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.
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