New York Times
By Michael Wines and Julie Bosman
May 14, 2017
Kris W. Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state, oversees an office whose clerical and regulatory work costs the state’s taxpayers barely $5.5 million a year. But he has parlayed that modest post into a national platform for tough restrictions on voting rights and immigration, becoming both a celebrated voice within the Republican Party and a regular target of lawsuits by civil rights advocates.
Now, as vice chairman of the new Advisory Commission on Election Integrity announced by the White House on Thursday (Vice President Mike Pence is the titular chairman), Mr. Kobach has a far bigger soapbox for his views on voter fraud — which Republicans, including President Trump, call a cancer on democracy. Others say it is a pretense for discouraging the poor, minorities and other typically Democratic-leaning voters from casting ballots.
Academic studies regularly show — and most state election officials agree — that fraud is rare, and that the kind of fraud Republicans seek to address with voter ID laws is minuscule.
Mr. Kobach promised an impartial inquiry into election vulnerabilities during an interview on Friday, saying the commission would “go where the facts take us.” But in Kansas, the facts appear at best mixed, and critics say he is one of the most partisan and polarizing figures imaginable to preside over a fair inquiry on voter fraud.
Since taking office in 2011, he has persuaded the Kansas Legislature to enact some of the nation’s most rigorous voting restrictions and to give him special authority to enforce them. The result has been a campaign against supposedly unchecked voting fraud, particularly by immigrants.
Most fraud claims, however, have proved vaporous, and convictions are sparse — nine since 2015 and only one of them a foreigner — and placed a heavy burden on ordinary citizens. In striking down some of Kansas’ voting rules in 2016, a federal court said restrictive registration requirements had denied more than 18,000 Kansans their constitutional right to cast ballots.
In an editorial this month, The Kansas City Star mockingly called Mr. Kobach “the Javert of voter fraud,” after the ham-handed detective in “Les Miserables,” wasting tax dollars on “his own single-minded pursuit.”
Mr. Kobach is undeterred. In November, he echoed President Trump’s baseless claim that he would have won the popular vote but for ballots cast by millions of illegal voters. And he has said that the few illegally registered foreigners he claims to have identified in Kansas are but the “tip of the iceberg” of fraudulent votes by immigrants.
“We’ve had substantial numbers of noncitizens getting on our voter rolls,” he said recently. “If other states are experiencing the same problem, then I think it would be appropriate for them to consider what Kansas has done.”
Kansas Republicans see Mr. Kobach as a rising star, and he is said to be preparing for a gubernatorial campaign in 2018. “Very smart guy, very passionate about his beliefs,” said Clayton Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party. “He has a very strong core group of supporters.’’
His critics are contemptuous. “He’s a person who has built a political career on xenophobia,” said Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s worked great for him, but not for the people he has disenfranchised.”
Mr. Kobach called the xenophobia charge outrageous.
At 51, Mr. Kobach is building a political career for which he has meticulously prepared. He was a state champion debater in high school and class valedictorian. He made summa cum laude studying government (and heading the Republican Club) at Harvard, earned a Ph.D. in political science (and a place on the rowing team) at the University of Oxford and in 1995 earned a law degree (and was a law review editor) at Yale.
Yale colleagues called him a fish-out-of-water conservative in a decidedly liberal law school, but also a pleasant colleague. “Kris was totally opposite on the political spectrum from me,” said Jesselyn Radack, now director of the whistle-blower protection program at ExposeFacts, an advocacy group in Washington. “But at the same time, it was a ‘let me give you a ride to the airport’ sort of thing.”
After missionary work in Africa, a stint teaching law and a City Council seat in Overland Park, Kan., Mr. Kobach was named a White House fellow in 2001, and worked on immigration issues after the Sept. 11 attacks.
It proved a seminal experience for Mr. Kobach. He helped design the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, an antiterror effort that flagged supposedly high-risk young men entering the United States from 25 mostly Muslim nations, diverting them for interrogation, limits on their travel and, at one point, fingerprinting. Of the 85,000 men who were entered into the so-called Muslim registry before it was discontinued, none were charged with terrorism-related crimes.
Mr. Kobach’s views on immigration now are decidedly hard-line. He has long advised the legal affiliate of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a powerful anti-immigration lobby denounced by some civil liberty advocates for its past ties to white nationalism.
Mr. Kobach has drafted strict immigration legislation in states and towns nationwide and pressed lawsuits to make life more difficult for undocumented immigrants, such as an effort to deny in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students in California.
He also was the author of the proposal by the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, to make undocumented immigrants “self-deport” by cutting off government support.
Mr. Kobach has said he is working to preserve the nation’s “sovereignty,” telling Newsweek in 2011 that “you can’t have open immigration and a welfare state.” But opponents have used some of his actions to brand him a nativist and even a racist.
Mr. Kobach was widely criticized in 2015 after speaking at a writers workshop of The Social Contract Press, a publisher of white nationalist tracts. And he has been denounced for appearing on a weekly talk-radio program in which he has lent credence to some callers’ racial and religious conspiracy theories. He has questioned whether President Barack Obama might call for an end to prosecuting black criminal suspects and whether his support of the Arab Spring uprising was a pretext for “opening the door to radical Islamism.”
Only in 2009, when he decided to run for secretary of state, did Mr. Kobach begin a sustained attack on voter fraud, warning that fraud proponents “have burrowed into every corner of our country” and that illegal registration of immigrants was “pervasive.” Weeks after he took office in 2011, the Kansas Legislature adopted his proposal to require anyone registering to vote to prove citizenship, and to require an approved photo ID card at the polls.
Mr. Kobach has since declared victory in the fraud wars, claiming on Friday to have uncovered 125 illegally registered noncitizens out of 1.8 million Kansans on the voting rolls. But court documents filed in one Kansas lawsuit suggested that confusion, not fraud, was at issue in many cases. In one county where Mr. Kobach found 17 noncitizen voters, only one had cast a ballot, and five had actually self-reported their mistake to election officials. Most of Mr. Kobach’s nine fraud convictions involve people who voted in two states. Neither a citizenship requirement nor an ID would have prevented those offenses.
Representative Jim Ward, a Democrat and Kansas House minority leader who has known Mr. Kobach for 10 years, said Mr. Kobach’s efforts mainly had made it harder for eligible people to vote. Federal courts appear to agree: Last year, judges barred Kansas from requiring citizenship proof from people registering at drivers’ licensing offices and other places covered under the federal “motor voter” law. The requirement, which one Republican-appointed judge called a “mass denial of a fundamental constitutional right,” had prevented one in seven new registrants from casting ballots.
Mr. Kobach then declared a two-tier registration system, saying that voters who did not prove their citizenship could vote only in federal elections. An appeals court overruled that as well.
Mr. Kobach said he was mystified by his critics’ opposition to the new electoral integrity commission. Those who say fraud is almost nonexistent “should be glad that this commission is being formed,” he said, “because then the commission would confirm their predictions.”
Critics say his selection as leader almost guarantees a different conclusion. “Whenever I hear Kris Kobach use the words ‘voter fraud,’ what that means in English for regular old folks is voter suppression,” Mr. Ward said. “Most secretaries of state see their job to be a fair arbiter of elections. Kris has believed that the secretary of state is a partisan tool to affect the results of elections.”
Michael Wines reported from New York and Julie Bosman from Chicago.
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