Kansas Senate approves election fraud measure
By JOHN HANNA
AP Political Writer
TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) -- Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach would get the power he's sought for his office to prosecute election fraud cases, but he'd also have to shut down his political action committee under legislation approved Thursday by the state Senate.
The Senate approved the bill on a 31-9 vote, sending it to the House, where its future is less certain.
Kobach, a former constitutional law professor, said he doubts a law prohibiting the secretary of state from having a PAC would be constitutional. But he also said he's optimistic legislators ultimately will junk the anti-PAC proposal while expanding his office's authority.
"I'm pleased that the Senate intends to get serious about the prosecution of election crimes," Kobach said during an interview.
Kobach, a conservative Republican elected in 2010, successfully pushed for laws requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls and to require people who register to vote for the first time in Kansas to provide proof of their U.S. citizenship. But lawmakers balked previously at giving the secretary of state authority to file and prosecute election fraud cases instead of referring them to federal, state or local prosecutors.
Kobach argues his office needs the power because election fraud cases are often a low priority for other prosecutors, who must pursue violent crimes.
But Kobach is a polarizing political figure. He was nationally known as a law professor for advising officials in other states wanting to crack down on illegal immigration and helped draft tough laws in Arizona and Alabama. His push for photo ID and proof-of-citizenship rules for prospective voters brought him more national attention, and he's even weighed in as a private citizen on gun rights proposals.
Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, who ran unsuccessfully twice for secretary of state, said giving Kobach the power to pursue election fraud allegations could lead to expensive "witch hunts."
"It's overreaching," Haley said. "It's overlap that's unnecessary."
In the House, Elections Committee Chairman Scott Schwab, a conservative Olathe Republican who's been a Kobach ally, said he also has "mixed feelings" about expanding the secretary of state's authority.
Kobach also has faced criticism for forming his Prairie Fire PAC in February 2012. Its finance reports show that it contributed a total of $13,000 to 14 GOP Senate candidates, including 10 who were elected, and spent another $10,395 on radio advertisements and mailers for three GOP candidates.
The Senate voted 23-17 to amend its bill to prohibit the secretary of state from operating a PAC that contributes to candidates for the Legislature or statewide office or finances independent advertising or mailings to help them.
Supporters of that measure said it's inappropriate for the secretary of state to be involved so directly in campaigns other than his own. The proposal split majority Republicans, with Senate President Susan Wagle, of Wichita, supporting it.
Kobach said banning PACs for any public official likely violates free speech rights, and a ban for one public official but not others, such as governor, is even more objectionable. He noted that the secretary of state doesn't directly supervise county clerks and election commissioners who actually count votes.
The House rejected a similar proposal Wednesday during a debate on another election bill, and Kobach said Democrats "manipulated" Wagle into helping them get their measure passed in her chamber.
But Wagle said: "I don't think it was personal. I don't believe it was partisan."
Bill expanding secretary of state's power is SB 63.
Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org
Text of SB 63 and Senate's vote: http://bit.ly/13rZcY5
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