Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach started drawing the ire of statewide voting rights advocates years before he was appointed to President Donald Trump’s election integrity commission and continued his work on voter fraud at the commission’s first meeting this week.
The controversial champion of strict voting laws long has been known for his claims of voting fraud and landed a national position under Trump, who has repeatedly claimed without evidence that illegal votes for former opponent Hillary Clinton cost him the popular vote last fall, though he won the Electoral College. Now, on a national stage, Kobach is hoping to study the election system and supposed voter fraud through the commission, which met for the first time Wednesday.
Both Kobach and Trump said Wednesday the commission’s job was to thoroughly study the electoral system without preconceived notions, but they alluded to claims of voter fraud in their comments. Trump said the commission would approach the research with a “very open mind and with no conclusions already drawn.”
At the meeting, which came amid a swarm of controversy and lawsuits over the commission’s work, Kobach said millions of people could be registered to vote in two places, that 18,000 people are projected to be illegally registered in Kansas and that his office has identified 128 cases of non-citizens attempting to register to vote. Since he gained the ability to prosecute illegal votes in 2015, though, his office has obtained just nine convictions. Voting rights advocates in his home state dispute his claims.
The commission’s meeting Wednesday was its first non-telephone meeting, and its efforts already faced opposition.
At the meeting, Kobach claimed 128 non-citizens have registered or tried to register to vote in Kansas, calling it the “tip of the iceberg.” In an interview Thursday with The Topeka Capital-journal, he said he didn’t know exactly how many ended up voting in Kansas but that less than half successfully voted and most successfully registered.
Cille King, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas, said non-citizens can sometimes attempt to register because of a misunderstanding while they are trying to get a temporary driver’s license.
Kobach also stirred controversy after the commission’s meeting, telling MSNBC that voters could never be sure of the true outcome of the popular vote in the 2016 presidential election. In Thursday’s interview, he said it would be impossible to know the exact tally without interviewing each of what he claims could be millions of illegal voters. Kobach said, however, that Clinton had “a huge lead in the popular vote.”
“We know the outcome of the popular vote,” Kobach said. “There’s not going to be a challenge to the popular vote.”
Kobach also said the commission wasn’t formed to prove or disprove Trump’s claims that voter fraud cost him the election.
After facing pushback and a lawsuit against its request for a trove of states’ publicly available voter data, the commission temporarily stopped accepting submissions from states until a federal judge decides whether to block them as part of a lawsuit by the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
Kobach said only Arkansas has sent data and the commission either returned or destroyed it, so it won’t have state data until the judge rules on whether to block the collection.
Another lawsuit against the commission sought to stop Wednesday’s meeting from happening, but a federal judge declined to block the meeting as part of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s lawsuit.
Complaints against the commission have claimed Kobach’s work invades voters’ privacy. Kobach disputes the argument because some voter information is publicly available under open records laws.
Doug Bonney, chief counsel and legal director of the ACLU of Kansas, said the data collection and Kobach’s signature proof of citizenship policy are efforts to solve problems that don’t exist. He said double voting happens rarely, and non-citizen voting is almost nonexistent.
“It’s not even a drop in the bucket,” Bonney said. “It’s a particle of spit in the universe.”
He said he worried that having voter data centralized through the commission could increase the risk of misuse or suppression efforts by the commission or increase the risk of hacking from the outside.
Kobach said the commission couldn’t force state and federal lawmakers to take up policy changes.
Voter fraud work in Kansas
Kobach gained a reputation for his voter fraud work in Kansas, where he championed a requirement that citizens prove their status when they register to vote.
King said nearly 17,000 people were on a suspended voters list as of June 19 because they haven’t submitted citizenship documents. She said the list from Kobach’s office didn’t disclose which ones had registered at a Department of Motor Vehicles office or on a federal form, which isn’t subject to the requirement. It is unclear how many of those voters wouldn’t be able to vote.
King called the list evidence of suppression because lawful voters could be prevented from voting if they registered with a state form. She pointed out that just one of Kobach’s nine convictions of voter fraud was for someone who wasn’t a citizen.
“I know we have Kansas students — Lawrence, Kansas, students — who I helped register to vote at some point who are still showing on that list, and I have no doubt that they’re citizens,” King said.
Kobach disputes the list represents voter suppression, saying county election offices make efforts to remind voters to turn in their documents and get them registered.
“It is suppression because it makes voting harder for people who are citizens, who are qualified to vote under the provisions of the Kansas and U.S. Constitution,” Bonney said.
Shawnee County Election Commissioner Andrew Howell said the citizenship requirement hasn’t had a clearly significant impact on turnout or the election office’s ability to process voter registrations. Kobach and Howell said voter turnout increased in the 2014 midterm and 2016 presidential elections.
Kobach said his office is investigating more cases of voter fraud. He wouldn’t say how many the office was pursing, but he said he expected to continue at the rate at which he has been prosecuting cases.
National spotlight on Kansas
Kobach’s work has brought a national political spotlight to Kansas with the help of GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s recently repealed tax policy and U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran’s surprising opposition to a federal health care bill.
Kobach said he thought the attention would be forgotten by the time Kansans vote on a new governor in 2018, but he said he thought it was good Kansas could lead the way on election law.
“Kansas has the most secure voter rolls in the country. That’s a good thing,” Kobach said. “Other states can look at Kansas and decide if they want to emulate our state and adopt some of the same protections for the integrity of our elections.”
Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, said Kobach’s work helps get him further in his political ambitions and feeds his base. Kobach announced last month he would run for Kansas governor.
“He’s a magnet for controversy, and he enjoys it,” Smith said.
Kobach’s critics, however, said they worry about seeing Kobach-like policies brought to a national stage.
Bonney said amendments to the National Voter Registration Act could result in mass voter suppression. Kobach expressed interest in altering the law, according to emails obtained by the Wichita Eagle, but Kobach said Thursday he has no immediate interest in changing federal voting law.
The commission he sits on is tasked with presenting its research findings.