President Donald Trump today named Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to help lead a commission on voter fraud and suppression, a body he has promised to create since taking office nearly four months ago.
Kobach, who has gained national notoriety for his claims of widespread voter fraud, will serve as vice chair alongside Vice President Mike Pence, who will chair the commission.
Kobach has stood by Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election, although no evidence has surfaced to support that claim. Trump, in turn, has cited Kobach as a source for his claim of widespread voter fraud.
Kobach has successfully pushed for tighter voter registration and voter ID requirements in Kansas. He says the rules have helped secure Kansas elections, but his critics say the requirements block legal voters and exaggerate the issue of voter fraud.
“The concrete evidence is that this is not a problem. Very, very few people who are non-citizens have tried to register to vote in Kansas,” Doug Bonney, an attorney with the ACLU of Kansas, said in an interview last year.
Kobach, who was in Washington on Thursday, will keep his job as Kansas secretary of state. He is said to be considering a run for Kansas governor next year.
Tomas Lopez, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program, says the voter fraud commission is a distraction – “an effort to find proof for the president’s earlier claim that millions of people voted illegally in last year’s election.”
“We’ve seen over and over again that the instances of fraud that do take place are very, very rare and simply can’t add up to the millions and millions claim that he has put forward,” Lopez tells KCUR.
Lopez says Kobach has been one of the most vocal proponents of the notion of rampant voter fraud.
“He's used this notion of widespread fraud to promote research and laws that we believe unduly disenfranchise voters,” Lopez says. “We've seen that to be the case in Kansas in particular, with the proof of citizenship requirement and the difficulties that that's imposed there.”
Mark P. Johnson, a Kansas City attorney who has challenged Kansas’ proof of citizenship law, says he’s willing to give Kobach the benefit of the doubt.
“I’d be disappointed if he goes on to the commission with the previous position that voter fraud exists,” he says. “I hope he even-handedly weighs the evidence that’s presented. In other words, I hope it’s a true investigation, with the conclusions going where the evidence leads them.”
Early Trump supporter
Kobach was an early Trump supporter and has advised Trump on immigration and voting issues. In addition to gaining national prominence for his claims about voter fraud, Kobach is known for his hardline views on immigration.
He played a major role in crafting an Arizona law that, among other things, made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be in Arizona without carrying registration documents. The U.S. Supreme Court later struck down that provision as well as other parts of the law.
He also was behind the so-called Muslim registry that was established after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The news about the voter fraud commission comes a day after a federal judge in a Kansas voting rights case ordered Kobach to turn over by Friday documents he was photographed holding while heading to a November meeting with then President-elect Trump.
The plaintiffs in that case are challenging a 2011 Kansas law championed by Kobach that requires residents to show a passport, birth certificate or other documentary proof of citizenship when registering to vote.
The plaintiffs say the documents Kobach was photographed holding are relevant because they bear on the question of whether Kobach can prove that a substantial number of non-citizens have registered to vote in Kansas, as he insists. One of the documents was Kobach’s proposal to amend the federal motor voter law, which makes it easy for voters to register when they get a driver’s license by simply swearing they are citizens.
Voter fraud in Kansas
Between Jan. 1, 2013, when the Kansas law proof-of-citizenship law took effect, and the end of 2016, more than 20,000 voter registration applications in Kansas were canceled because the applicants failed to produce documents proving their citizenship, according to evidence presented in the lawsuits challenging the Kansas law.
Court filings show that before the law took effect, 29 non-citizens registered to vote in Kansas and nine of them actually voted. Since then, 15 noncitizens have unsuccessfully attempted to register to vote.
The Kansas Legislature has authorized Kobach to prosecute voter fraud, the only secretary of the state in the nation with that power. Last week he announced his ninth voter fraud conviction, of a man who had voted in both Kansas and Texas.
“This conviction demonstrates once again how prevalent the crime of double voting is,” Kobach said in a statement. “In Kansas, we are making it clear that people who willfully vote twice will be prosecuted.”
Of the nine misdemeanor convictions Kobach has secured so far, eight have been of citizens – mostly older, white Republican men who say they mistakenly voted in two states.
Kobach has obtained only one conviction of a non-citizen, a Peruvian national named Victor David Garcia Bebek who pleaded guilty to voting illegally in three elections in 2012 and 2014. Bebek’s case emerged when he registered to vote in Sedgwick County after he became a naturalized U.S. citizen this year. Election officials then discovered that he had been on the voter rolls since 2011, according to Kobach.
Before he was elected secretary of state in 2010, Kobach, 51, was an Overland Park city councilman and chairman of the Kansas Republican party. He ran unsuccessfully for Kansas’ 3rd congressional district in 2004, when he was defeated by the Democratic incumbent, Dennis Moore.
Kobach earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard, holds master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Oxford and received his law degree from Yale. From 1996 until his election as secretary of state, he taught constitutional law and other law courses at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law.
Dan Margolies is KCUR’s health editor. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.
Stephen Koranda is Kansas Public Radio’s Statehouse reporter. You can reach him on Twitter @kprkoranda.