Kansas: Aftershocks from the epicenter of voter suppression

Ahead of the November 6 elections, CJR invited writers to spotlight stories that deserve closer scrutiny, in their states and beyond, before voters cast their ballots. Read other dispatches from “States of the Union” here.

As spiritual texts have long observed and modern psychology would seem to confirm, what we fear or despise in others often turns out to be our own shortcomings. The jealous husband who obsesses over his faithful wife’s whereabouts is the one who eventually cheats. The partygoer annoyed by a dramatic loudmouth at the table is, herself, an attention seeker. The politician obsessed with voter fraud is himself fraudulent, a practitioner of voter suppression and ballot-counting malfeasance.

Indeed, Kansas Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate Kris Kobach—a leading peddler of claims that non-citizens unlawfully cast ballots in alarming numbers—has wreaked havoc on the voting process, making Kansas the unfortunate epicenter of a national voter-suppression crisis.

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In 2013, Kansas began requiring residents seeking voter registration to produce documents proving their citizenship. This rule was particularly onerous for those applying via the state’s “motor voter” law. Kansas allows potential voters to register when obtaining a driver’s license, so long as they provide proof of lawful residence. The new voter requirement—for citizenship documents DMV-goers didn’t have handy—stymied thousands of applicants.

By the end of March 2016, nearly 31,000 registrations by eligible voters had been either canceled or suspended. The American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters of Kansas and others sued. Last June, a federal judge ruled that the law violated the National Voter Registration Act and the 14th Amendment.

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Non-citizens, it turned out, represented less than one percent of tossed voter registrations. The ACLU put the number of would-be voters barred from casting ballots at 35,000. After the court decision, the Kansas City Star editorial board wrote that Kobach “got schooled”:

Even as the country’s one secretary of state with the ability to prosecute such cases, Kobach located only 43 non-citizens out of 1.8 million Kansas voters who had registered to vote in the state since 1999. Just 11 of those actually cast a ballot, and [Judge] Robinson found those were “largely explained by administrative error, confusion, or mistake.” What Kobach still sees as “the tip of an iceberg” of massive voter fraud, she concluded was “only an icicle.”

The same judge found Kobach in contempt of court for failing to inform applicants of their eligibility. “Judge Julie Robinson also ordered Kobach, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, to take more hours of continuing legal education after he was found in contempt and was frequently chided during the trial over missteps,” the Wichita Eagle reported.

Kobach’s office ensured that fines could be paid with public funds.

Kobach, who last year took his voter-suppression efforts to the federal level as vice chair of President Donald Trump’s short-lived commission on voter fraud, has been neither repentant nor deterred. In August, he criticized another federal panel member for releasing documents that confirmed insufficient evidence to prove widespread voter fraud.

Kobach’s fixation on citizenship—which, in a state with a rapidly growing Hispanic population, might be interpreted as a fixation on whiteness—stretches far beyond the election process. As a private attorney, the Kansas City Star and ProPublica reported, he cost cities millions of dollars in failed attempts at anti-immigration ordinances.

In the August primary, Kobach won the Republican gubernatorial nomination against incumbent Jeff Colyer by 345 votes—yes, that’s 345—after Colyer called off a potential recount.

As Kobach faces Democratic candidate and public-schools advocate Laura Kelly in the general election, it might give good reporters pause that Kobach—whose efforts as an elected official and private attorney proved respectively to be unlawful and costly—won his party’s nomination by such a narrow margin.

Whatever is the matter with Kansas is the matter with Washington, too—and it might have less to do with what voters believe than with whose votes are cast, and which votes are counted.

When a recount appeared imminent in the razor-margin race, Kobach temporarily stepped down from election duties as secretary of states. Nonetheless, he made two phone calls to the election commissioner of the county that decided the election while votes were still being counted, flagrantly disregarding the appearance of a potential conflict of interest. A few weeks after the primary, Kobach reappointed that commissioner to another four-year term. The content of the phone calls remains unknown. A month later, an all-Republican state objections board rejected arguments that initial challenges to primary results were poorly handled and compromised by conflicts of interest.

Kobach says he is a Christian. When reporters covering the midterm elections address his mission to root out election crime, they might ask him how he feels about a verse from the book of Romans: “…For in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself.”

Kansas has several high-profile elections in play, including US congressional races in which Democrats Sharice Davids and James Thompson could flip district seats blue in a supposedly “deep red” state. Kansas is home to perhaps the greatest conservative influencers in modern history, the Koch brothers, whose political network pledged to spend $400 million on conservative campaigns and causes this election year. The progressive populist uprising for Davids, Thompson, and others in the belly of the dark-money beast is a crucial story that reflects national trends and may shift legislative power in Washington.

But races for state offices matter at the national level, too. Federal policy is filtered through state governments. No one knows this better than the 4.4 million poor Americans who are uninsured because their state governments refused Medicaid expansion funds under the Affordable Care Act, or the untold numbers of women seeking reproductive care in states that have made Roe v. Wade’s promise all but inaccessible on the ground.

At the geographic center of the country, Kansas is often a bellwether. The state is currently recovering from what former governor Sam Brownback called a “real live experiment”—draconian tax cuts that created budget disasters and devastated public programs—and Trump has proposed similar ideas for the nation. Now, Kobach has Trump’s endorsement and counts Donald Trump Jr. as a friend on the campaign trail.

Elections meddling by state administrations is a national concern. Readers, viewers and listeners deserve to understand the forces that might compromise the power of their ballots, from gerrymandering to unlawful purging of voter rolls. With pivotal midterm races across the country, no election coverage—in Kansas, and beyond—is complete without deep investigations into the voting process.

Whatever is the matter with Kansas is the matter with Washington, too—and it might have less to do with what voters believe than with whose votes are cast, and which votes are counted. Midterm election coverage fixates on the political divide between right and left. But, amid efforts by politicians to complicate and restrict voting across the country, the divide that will determine midterm elections is between those who manage to vote in an inaccessible system and those who do not.

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Sarah Smarsh has covered socioeconomic class, politics and public policy for The Guardian, The New York Times, The Texas Observer, and many other publications. A frequent commentator on class issues in the US, she recently was a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Smarsh's first book, Heartland, was recently long-listed for the National Book Award and is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize in nonfiction. She lives in Kansas.