TOPEKA — The elections director for Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach told county clerks Wednesday to comply with a federal court ruling that bans voter registration requirements, reversing preliminary guidance that left the issue in limbo for two days.
Although Kobach doesn't have authority over independently elected county clerks, many rely on his office for an understanding of how to handle elections. In a conference call Tuesday, elections director Bryan Caskey told them to continue enforcing the state's proof-of-citizenship law while Kobach's office reviewed Monday's 118-page ruling from U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson.
Robinson said the law was unconstitutional and — because Kobach has a "well-documented history of avoiding this court's orders" — explicitly directed him to instruct counties to comply with her ruling.
Danedri Herbert, a spokeswoman for Kobach, said it wasn't clear how soon those instructions should be made.
"I think 'immediately' is kind of open to interpretation," she said.
At first, Caskey told clerks to maintain the status quo until they received written instructions, leaving them uncertain about what to do with new applicants. Although a temporary injunction has blocked enforcement of the law for two years, Robinson and the American Civil Liberties Union have complained about confusion introduced by Kobach on the issue, which contributed to her finding him in contempt of court.
Nancy McCarter, the county clerk and election official for Pottawatomie County, said Caskey advised clerks "to continue as we have been." If someone had registered to vote Wednesday morning, she said, the individual would have needed a birth certificate or other document.
Saline County Clerk Jamie Allen said she hadn't read the judge's order and was waiting for information because state officials "give us our standards."
Others, like Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew, understood the judge's demands and scrubbed references to proof-of-citizenship requirements from the county's website.
"As county clerk," Shew said, "I am responsible for the citizens of our county and not to the SOS office. Therefore, we made the decision that served those citizens as a response to what the judge clearly stated in her ruling."
Caskey made things clear to everyone in an email he sent to clerks Wednesday afternoon.
"Do not ask for documentary proof of citizenship of any voter registration applicant," his directions said.
He also told counties to review every registration that was suspended or canceled for lacking proof of citizenship and to notify those people they can vote. Clerks were told to process a proof-of-citizenship document only if an applicant volunteers one.
Any person who applied without documents is to be treated the same as those who did. Additionally, clerks must review their websites and remove any references to proof of citizenship.
Dale Ho, an ACLU attorney, said the initial guidance from Caskey was "outrageous." Ho said there may still be compliance problems in the written instructions but that an initial reading didn't reveal any emergency issues.
Shawnee County election commissioner Andrew Howell, one of four officials appointed by Kobach for the largest counties in Kansas, said it was important to take a couple of days to understand the full ramifications of the judge's orders.
"I think we're all being cautious and not making big changes until we know exactly how it changes," Howell said.