More than 20,000 Kansas citizens were prevented from participating in the 2016 election because of voter suppression, said Davis Hammet, the 27-year-old founder of Loud Light, an organization that focuses on increasing youth civic participation in Kansas.
Hammet, along with three other Kansas voter experts, will address the topic of voter suppression in a panel discussion sponsored by the ACLU of KU. The panel discussion will begin at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 5, in the Centennial Room of the Kansas Union.
“It’s so bad, voter suppression,” Hammet said. “Kansas is the voter suppression capital of the country, and it calls into [question] the legitimacy of every elected official. So that’s why these issues are critical. It’s really about do we have a democracy or not in Kansas.”
Along with Hammet, the members of the panel are Mark Johnson, a university law professor and a member of the Board of Directors of the ACLU of Kansas; Steve Lopes, coordinator of the Johnson County Voting Coalition; and Jamie Shew, the Douglas County Clerk.
In addition to discussing voter suppression laws in Kansas, the panel will also suggest ways in which students can increase voter turnout among youth, said Sara Muench, president of the ACLU of KU.
“We’ve asked our panelists thus far, just start getting in your head, what are some ideas that students can do to be mobilized,” Muench said.
Kansas and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach have been at the center of voter controversy since 2011, when the state legislature passed the Secure and Fair Elections (SAFE) Act, which requires proof of citizenship when registering to vote.
The ACLU has filed 4 voting rights lawsuits against Kobach since the implementation of the SAFE Act.
“We believe that the SAFE Act, which requires both proof of citizenship to register to vote and then a photo I.D. to actually vote, practically result in fewer people voting,” Johnson said. “It’s more difficult to register. It’s more difficult to vote.”
Johnson said that if barriers are put in place, people don’t vote because voting is a low-return activity, meaning people don’t believe their vote makes a significant difference.
“Because it’s a low-return activity, anytime there’s a hurdle erected – no matter how low the hurdle is – we’re going to lose people,” Johnson said. “We lose a certain percentage of the electorate because they have to do these things, and they just don’t get around to doing it.”
Any Kansan who has registered to vote since Jan. 1, 2013, when the SAFE Act went into full effect, has had to present proof of citizenship, such as a passport or birth certificate, but Kansans who registered prior to 2013 did not have to provide any proof of this kind.
In this way, Hammet said the SAFE Act disproportionately disadvantages young people because it’s harder for them to register to vote. However, Hammet said young people also disadvantage themselves by willingly forfeiting their right to vote. As a result, issues millennials care about, such as student debt, aren’t addressed by the state government.
“It’s a huge problem that even their state representatives in Kansas think that student debt is one of the biggest crises our state faces, but they can’t talk about it because students don’t vote,” Hammet said. “They can’t even propose bills because it would be political suicide because the people who care about those issues aren’t participating.”
No matter what, young people need to vote, so politicians will pay attention to issues that affect them, Hammet said.
“Even if you don’t like any of the candidates, even casting a blank vote is a radical act because you’re starting to show up in the data,” Hammet said.
In addition to the panel discussion on Oct. 5, the ACLU of KU invited the League of Women Voters of Lawrence-Douglas County to help students register to vote before and after the panel.
This year, the voter registration deadline is Oct. 17, and local elections will be held on Nov. 7. Students can visit loudlight.org/vote to see if they are already registered to vote.
“If it didn’t matter, people wouldn’t be spending so much time writing laws to keep young people from voting, and they wouldn’t be spending millions of dollars defending these unconstitutional voter suppression laws,” Hammet said. “If for nothing else, vote because they don’t want you to.”
— Edited by Jake Stephens