Voter ID Firebrand Takes a Low-Profile Kansas Office Out of the Shadows

From The New York Times

By Trip Gabriel

TOPEKA, Kan. — In almost any other year, it would be hard to get much attention inside Kansas, let along nationwide, in the race for Kansas secretary of state, by tradition a no-drama job that administers elections, handles business paperwork and publishes directories on government services.

Instead, as Supreme Court rulings reignite a national debate over voter ID and fraud, no candidate more defines this moment of politicized voting rules than Secretary of State Kris W. Kobach, who has transformed an obscure office in a place far from the usual political battlegrounds, to become a lightning rod on restrictive voting and illegal immigration.

Mr. Kobach has been a major conservative voice on voter issues for years. He has helped states write strict laws requiring proof of citizenship, presided over the “Kansas project” — a national hunt for double registrations — and, most recently, tried to keep a Democratic candidate on the ballot with the potential to help Kansas’ endangered Republican senator, Pat Roberts.

An itinerant firebrand wielding a Yale law degree, baptized a “blood brother” by the heavy metal conservative Ted Nugent, Mr. Kobach was elected by a 22-point landslide in 2010.

Now he faces an unexpectedly tough re-election fight in deeply Republican Kansas, where many think the party may have gone too far. It is the same wave threatening to swamp Gov. Sam Brownback.

“They moved too far to the right,” said Marc White, a lawyer who came to a candidates’ forum last week in Topeka, the state capital, where Mr. Kobach spoke. “We’re a Republican state, don’t get me wrong. But you’re going to have a backlash to the more extreme policies.”

Mr. White described trying to help a man in his 40s caught in limbo by Kansas’ tough new voting law written by Mr. Kobach, which requires voters registering for the first time to document they are citizens. “This individual was born at home in Mississippi and is having a very difficult time obtaining records that would allow him to register,” Mr. White said.

Ever since the Florida secretary of state, Katherine Harris, a Republican, played a key role in the disputed 2000 election that gave the presidency to George W. Bush, the job of state elections administrator has gone from a little-known office to a politically charged one. Both national parties have programs to elect secretaries of state, especially in presidential battlegrounds where they anticipate voting rules could shape the contests of 2016 and 2020.

“We want to make it easier to vote, but hard to cheat,” said Jill Bader, a spokeswoman for the Republican State Leadership Committee, which produced an online ad for Mr. Kobach.

A Democratic group, iVote, says it is spending $1 million on secretary of state races in Iowa, Ohio, Colorado and Nevada. “We relied too long on the courts and we’ve seen we can’t do that anymore,” said Jeremy Bird, an iVote director, referring to rulings recently that upheld Republican-led voting restrictions in Ohio and North Carolina. “We want to get out on the front end with elections administrators.”

Mr. Kobach has had an outsize influence in states as far-flung as Arizona and Alabama by raising alarms about illegal immigrants stealing elections, a claim without substance, but which, critics say, has led to policies that depress turnout by groups inclined to vote Democratic.

Since his Kansas restrictions took effect last year, fully 16 percent of people seeking to register for the first time — currently more than 22,000 people — have had their applications delayed because they have not produced proof of citizenship, according to Mr. Kobach’s office.

His Democratic challenger, Jean Schodorf, called this a modern poll tax and a national disgrace. “Are you proud of the Kansas we have today,” she said at the candidates’ forum, “or like most of us are you embarrassed?”

Mr. Kobach said the law gave Kansas the most secure election system in the United States. “Every time an alien votes, it cancels out the vote of a United States citizen,” he said.

Voting regulations are Mr. Kobach’s latest cause. But he was a national hero to conservatives — and a whipping boy for the left — well before his election four years ago, when he advised states on immigration restrictions, including Arizona’s “show me your papers” provision, which was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Although studies repeatedly show voter fraud of the type Mr. Kobach targets to be extremely rare, he has not toned down his rhetoric. “We have had many, many cases of noncitizens registered to vote prior to our new law,” he said.

When pressed in a hearing in the State Legislature in January, however, Mr. Kobach said his office identified only 20 noncitizens who had registered before the new law, and just five who had actually voted.

Another of Mr. Kobach’s programs, Interstate Crosscheck, which compares voter registrations from about two dozen states to seek evidence of double voting, has also come up short in identifying significant fraud: he acknowledged only 11 cases of people voting in Kansas and another state in 2012.

Democrats argue that many restrictions enacted to fight allegations of fraud end up suppressing voter turnout. Last week, the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan Congressional research arm, reported that turnout in Kansas had declined 1.9 percent because of its ID law, especially among blacks and young voters.

Mr. Kobach criticized the report’s methodology. “We think of the G.A.O. as nonpartisan, but nonpartisan does not mean competent,” he said in an interview in his office, where laminated articles about him in Time magazine and other national publications hang on the wall.

Ms. Schodorf, a former Republican state senator who switched parties after a purge of legislative moderates by Governor Brownback, accused Mr. Kobach of creating a “mess” in the secretary of state’s office while traveling the country to pick ideological fights. These include lobbying the Texas Legislature to allow shooting feral hogs from helicopters.

The son of a Topeka car dealer, Mr. Kobach, 48, went off to Harvard and Oxford, where he completed a Ph.D. in political science before earning his law degree. He lost a Kansas congressional race in 2004 and served as the state’s Republican chairman before winning the secretary of state’s office.

Despite his record as a fire-breather, he has an even-keeled, somewhat nerdy disposition. Asked if he could be collateral damage in the anti-Brownback wave this year, he said, “It’s an interesting question, as a former academic who likes to study these things.”

Polls show Mr. Kobach narrowly ahead of Ms. Schodorf, who is a less than dynamic campaigner and has had difficulty raising money. This month, Mr. Kobach seemed to take a hit with voters when he unsuccessfully tried to force Democrats to keep a candidate on the ballot against Mr. Roberts, who is trailing an independent, Greg Orman, after the withdrawal of the Democratic nominee. Mr. Kobach said he was following the letter of the law. But Democrats accused him of trying to protect Mr. Roberts and Republicans’ chances of winning a Senate majority.

If Mr. Kobach loses his job, said Burdett A. Loomis, a University of Kansas political scientist, it will be because of perceptions that he has overly politicized his office. “That’s how Democrats win in a state like Kansas,” he said.

At the candidates’ forum, Hannah Anderson, a loan processor from Lawrence, said she favored Ms. Schodorf. “My biggest problem is the whole Roberts thing,” she said. “I think Kobach has a personal agenda.”

Larry Fischer, a veterinarian who took detailed notes as the candidates spoke, supported Mr. Kobach. “He protected our voting integrity,” he said.

Ms. Schodorf said there was no better example of voter disenfranchisement than the 22,000 Kansans whose registrations are in limbo because they have not proved their citizenship. She said some are senior citizens from out of state who no longer drive and can’t find a birth certificate. “They’ve been voting their whole lives,” she said. “They will never be able to vote again and it just tears them up inside."

Mr. Kobach said many began the registration process while getting a driver’s license but can’t be bothered to follow through with a birth certificate, which can be emailed from a phone. “They go to the D.M.V. and the lady says, ‘Do you want to register to vote?’ They don’t want to seem rude so they say yes,” he said. “They don’t really have the intention of voting.”

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