Kansas unusual in giving elections chief power to prosecute
Topeka ? Kansas is unique among U.S. states in recently granting its top elections official the power to prosecute alleged voting irregularities himself, and Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach is looking to move a contentious national debate past tough voter identification laws.
Kobach’s office earlier this month filed three election fraud cases in two counties, accusing the defendants of illegally voting in Kansas while casting ballots in the same elections in other states. The law allowing his office to do so — instead of forwarding evidence to prosecutors — took effect in July, and Kobach has promised to pursue more cases in the next two months.
It’s not yet clear whether other states will follow Kansas’ example, though Alabama’s secretary of state broached the subject with top lawmakers in his state earlier this year. The Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature, which heeded Kobach’s call to give the state some of the nation’s toughest voter identification laws, took four years to expand the power of his office.
“We’ve made an important innovation in Kansas, and it’s one that would help other states as well,” Kobach said, adding that he’s “happy to help” other states pursue similar laws.
A conservative former law professor, Kobach first won his office in 2010 by portraying election fraud as a major problem. Kansas started requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls in 2012, and since 2013, new voters have been required to prove their U.S. citizenship when registering.
Kobach argues that the policies he’s championed give Kansas the most secure elections in the nation.
Testifying before a legislative committee earlier this year, Kobach said his office identified 18 cases in which a person voted in Kansas and another state in the same elections in 2010 or 2012; only seven were prosecuted. In 2011, he told legislators there had been 59 reported cases of potential election fraud since 1997, affecting more than 200 ballots.
None of the three cases Kobach filed — or any he cited earlier this year — involved someone impersonating a voter or a non-citizen attempting to vote. Nor did most of the cases cited in his 2011 report.
Critics contend that the policies Kobach champions are politically motivated, pursued by Republicans who want to suppress turnout among Democratic-leaning groups, such as students and minorities. At the end of September, Kansas had nearly 37,700 incomplete registrations, most for people failing to provide proof of citizenship. Republicans were underrepresented; 56 percent listed no party affiliation, and nearly 45 percent were under age 30, an AP analysis showed.
Kobach has directed county election officials to begin canceling more than 30,000 registrations that had been incomplete more than 90 days.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Secretaries of States said they know of no other state that grants independent prosecutorial power to its secretary of state. Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s national Voting Rights Project, worries that Kobach has an incentive to file criminal cases to validate his assertions that election fraud is a problem.
“When there are election irregularities, it’s more frequently due to mistake, misunderstanding or incompetence than it is to malfeasance,” Ho said.
In Kansas, the association representing county prosecutors testified this year against the legislation granting the secretary of state’s office the power to pursue criminal cases, suggesting it was “unnecessary and wasteful.”
Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, a Republican, rejected Kobach’s argument that county prosecutors are too busy to make election fraud cases a priority by noting that his office handles 35,000 traffic infractions a year. Bennett said county prosecutors fall under specific legal ethics rules and are held accountable by local voters.
“The discretion and power given to elected prosecutors is something to be careful with,” Bennett said.
Ho questions whether other states will emulate Kansas. Only eight, including Kansas, have strict voter photo ID laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and only Alabama, Arizona and Georgia have proof-of-citizenship statutes.
In Alabama, Secretary of State John Merrill agrees his office should have the authority to prosecute election fraud cases, spokeswoman Kayla Farnon said. She said Merrill — who considers Kobach a close friend — explored the idea with legislative leaders earlier this year. But she said “it was understood it would not be granted” and his office instead reached an agreement with other state agencies on a project to prevent election irregularities.
But asked about a Kansas-style law in his state, Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, a Republican elected in 2014, said in an emailed statement, “We want to work directly with district attorneys first.”
Missouri’s Democratic secretary of state, John Kander, said he trusts local prosecutors and doesn’t see the need to seek the power Kobach did in Kansas.
“He has gotten a lot of attention, which is his goal,” Kander said. “I think it’s pretty clear that Secretary Kobach has used his position as secretary of state to an extreme partisan agenda time and time again.”