TOPEKA — Secretary of State Kris Kobach plans to seek the power to prosecute election crimes next year, and he wants to include that in an overhaul of how the state handles voter fraud and ineligible voters.
That’s in addition to a proposal that would make it illegal to photograph a completed ballot.
Kobach said he has pushed for prosecutorial authority before without success. But he said he plans to push for his office and the Kansas Attorney General to have such power again in the 2013 legislative session, which will feature a more conservative Senate and more than 60 new lawmakers in the Statehouse.
“It’s something that needs to be done,” he said. “We want to synthesize everything so the Kansas code is consistent. Once we open the hood, we want to fix the entire engine.”
The idea is to separate various forms of ineligible voters, such as felons who try to vote and people who try to vote in the wrong district, and create separate penalties, Kobach said.
“No one is going to be prosecuted for anything unless they have willful intent to break the law,” he said.
Currently, election crime prosecution is largely left to county attorneys. Kobach said he thinks too many cases get pushed to the bottom of the pile because county attorneys often have more pressing issues, such as violent crimes, to deal with.
Several other state agencies, such as the insurance and securities departments, have narrow prosecutorial authority. Kobach said his office could try cases without increasing its budget or hiring more staff.
Olathe Republican Rep. Scott Schwab, who is the chair of the House Committee on Elections, said he has some anxiety about giving Kobach’s office the power to prosecute, but he said he understands why Kobach seeks it to go after more cases.
“There’s a legitimate argument about why he needs that power,” he said. “But you have a lot of conservatives who don’t like to expand government power.”
Schwab said he supports Kobach’s push to make it illegal to photograph a completed ballot, something that Kobach says will help prevent people from selling their votes. Schwab credited Kobach for pushing the state to upgrade its election laws, and he said he hopes Kobach’s controversial personality doesn’t get in the way of the discussion on new laws and penalties.
“When you have a loud, angry opposition, large or small, the motivation to cheat is there,” he said. “It isn’t just Democrats. It can be anybody. You need to make sure you have mechanism in place to punish.”
Kobach has pushed the issue of voter fraud to the forefront. All voters are now required to show a government-issued photo ID to vote. Beginning in January, those registering for the first time will be required to prove that they are U.S. citizens by providing a birth certificate, passport, driver’s license or other documents.
Kobach has faced sharp criticism from opponents who say voter fraud is exceptionally rare and that Kobach’s approach to fighting it disenfranchises voters.
Wichita Democratic Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, the ranking minority member of the Senate Elections and Ethics Committee, said the state should make it easier for people to vote, not harder. And she said problems, such as the repeated delays in reporting election results in Sedgwick County, should be dealt with before the state starts overhauling laws.
The nationwide presidential race was called before any returns were posted by the Sedgwick County election commissioner’s office on Tuesday. Full results were not available until almost 2 a.m.
“I think we’re putting the cart before the horse on these upcoming proposals,” said Faust-Goudeau. “I think we need to fix these issues first before we move forward.”
Faust-Goudeau said she would oppose a ban on taking pictures of completed ballots.
“I just think that until we get all of this stuff straightened out and the process is working for everybody, I think people should have that right to keep some document or proof,” she said.
Faust-Goudeau also said she hasn’t heard of any cases of photos being used in voter fraud in Kansas, and she said the alleged fraud in the state and nation has been exaggerated.
In August, an analysis of more than 2,000 alleged cases of voter fraud nationwide by News21, a nationwide group of journalism students backed by the Carnegie Corporation, found that fraud is rare.
Their study found 216 cases of alleged fraud in Kansas since 2000. Absentee ballot fraud, which sometimes involves a campaign filling out a voters’ absentee ballot, accounted for about half of the cases. But only one case has occurred since the state began requiring absentee voters to include their drivers license number and a verified signature.
There were no cases involving vote-buying, which is Kobach’s primary reason for wanting to ban photos of completed ballots. But Kobach said other states have had such cases involving ballot photos.
There were 16 cases of a non-citizen casting an ineligible vote, half of which occurred in Sedgwick County. Only one case led to a plea. The status of the rest is unknown.
And there were 33 cases of double voting, which Kobach said is the easiest to prosecute because it typically involves two paper documents and two signatures from one person. Of those, four cases are pending and six cases had pleas.
The News21 project found one case in 2012, where a person was accused of voting twice by mail ballot, and one in 2011, where a non-citizen in Seward County was accused of registering to vote. The project identified 41 cases in 2010.
Overall, the reports determined that the type of in-person voter impersonation that prompted states to adopt voter ID laws are “virtually non-existent.”