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Kansas Scrambles To Change Rules After 6 Teens Enter Governor's Race

Six Kansas teens are running for governor, following the lead of Jack Bergeson (center). Some of the candidates are seen here participating in a forum at a high school in Lawrence, Kan., in October.
Christopher Smith
AFP/Getty Images
Six Kansas teens are running for governor, following the lead of Jack Bergeson (center). Some of the candidates are seen here participating in a forum at a high school in Lawrence, Kan., in October.

There are a lot of requirements if you want to vote in Kansas. You must be 18 years old. You need to show a photo ID at your polling place and show proof of U.S. citizenship when you register to vote. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights says the state's voter ID laws are among the strictest in the nation.

But when it comes to the rules about who can run for state office? There are no rules.

"Under Kansas law, there is no law governing the qualifications for governor, not one," Bryan Caskey, director of elections at the Kansas secretary of state's office, told The Kansas City Star last year. "So there's seriously nothing on the books that lays out anything, no age, no residency, no experience. Nothing."

So into the race jumped then 16-year-old Jack Bergeson. Calling himself an anti-establishment candidate, Bergeson is pursuing the Democratic nomination, advocating for a $12 minimum wage, legalization of medical marijuana, and high-speed rail for major cities in the region.

"I thought, you know, let's give the people of Kansas a chance," Bergeson told the Starin August. "Let's try something new that has never really been tried anywhere else before."

Three more teen boys, running as Republicans, soon entered the governor's race – so many that they had their own candidates' forum in a high school gym in Lawrence.

"This needs to be a government that represents everyone, not just 30 years old up," said 17-year-old candidate Dominic Scavuzzo.

Two moreteen boys threw hats in the ring, spurring Kansas lawmakers to try to put a stop to such youthful exuberance. Republican Rep. Blake Carpenter introduced a bill requiring candidates to be at least 18 years old to run for the state's top elected offices, such as governor, secretary of state or attorney general. And candidates for governor and lieutenant governor would have to have lived in the state for four years.

"We have age requirements on voters, and I really think that anybody who's running should be able to vote for themselves," Rep. Keith Esau, a Republican running for secretary of state, told The Topeka Capital-Journal.

The Starreports that the bill passed out of House committee on Monday.

"I don't think it's a good thing," Bergeson, now 17, told the Star. "I'm not a fan of it. I think it's a reactionary bill. I think it's trying to disenfranchise candidates."

The law wouldn't take effect until after the November elections. And that's important, said Caskey at the secretary of state's office.

"The secretary of state does not want there to be any appearance of a conflict of interest concerning persons who are currently candidates and do not meet these proposed requirements," he told the Capital-Journal.

He's referring to Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the force behind the state's strict voter ID law, who is running for governor. Kobach was also co-chair of President Trump's controversial voting commission, which was dissolved last month.

But the anything-goes system that has been so appealing to Kansas teenagers has been less appealing to one group: women.

State Sen. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, became the first woman to enter the crowded field for governor in December. Meanwhile, more than 20 men or boys have declared their candidacy.

The state's lack of rules for candidacy are so profound that Caskey could not even find a rule limiting the field to human candidates.

"[A] dog has never tried to file," he told the Starlast year. "I don't know what would happen if one tried to."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 10, 2018 at 12:00 AM EST
A correction to a correction: We were right the first time. Jack Bergeson was 16 when he entered the race. He's now 17.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.
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