TOPEKA — Kansas lawmakers are close to giving Secretary of State Kris Kobach new power he's sought for his office to investigate and prosecute potential election fraud cases.
The Republican secretary of state said Friday that he anticipates a bill expanding his office's authority passing the GOP-dominated Legislature after its members reconvene next week to wrap up their business for the year. Kobach has sought the power since taking office in January 2011 but has met resistance in the past from Democrats and moderate Republicans.
The House and Senate have approved different versions of a bill containing Kobach's proposal, setting up negotiations over the final version. Legislators end their annual spring break Wednesday.
“I'm optimistic that it will get done,” Kobach said.
The secretary of state is Kansas' chief elections official but must refer cases of potential election irregularities to county and federal prosecutors if criminal charges are to be pursued. Even the state attorney general's office must consult with local prosecutors on such cases.
Kobach said county prosecutors have too many other criminal cases to handle to pursue election fraud allegations aggressively, and the attorney general's office also has “a very full plate.” He said the secretary of state's office is most likely to pursue election fraud allegations aggressively and develop expertise in investigating them.
“We just want to make sure that somebody with prosecutorial experience goes after these cases,” Kobach said.
But Kobach, a GOP conservative, also has been a polarizing political figure. He is a former law professor and nationally known for advising officials in other states wanting to crack down on illegal immigration, helping draft tough laws in Arizona and Alabama. His push for photo ID and proof-of-citizenship rules for prospective voters brought him more national attention, and he's even weighed in this year on gun rights proposals.
Rep. Jan Pauls, a Hutchinson Democrat, said if legislators want a state official to have the specific authority to prosecute election fraud cases, it should go to the attorney general's office.
“The AG should be in control of all the prosecutions, or the local district and county attorneys,” she said. “It's nice to have everybody's role stay the same as it has been traditionally.”
Kobach's critics also contend that he's overstated the potential for election abuses both in pushing for expanded authority for his office and successfully pursuing the photo ID and proof-of-citizenship laws in Kansas. Election fraud prosecutions have been relatively few over the past decade, and the state has about 1.7 million registered voters.
But Kobach argues that Kansas appears to have few cases because election irregularities aren't pursued aggressively. He said his office has found at least 30 cases from the 2012 election in which the name and birthdate of someone who voted in Kansas matched the name and birthdate of someone who voted in another state, suggesting illegal, double voting.
Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would give both the secretary of state's and the attorney general's offices independent authority to prosecute election fraud cases.
The two chambers have differed on unrelated provisions dealing with political action committees formed by elected state officials. In the Senate, Democrats won approval of a proposal to force Kobach to dissolve a PAC he formed last year. The House struck that provision and added a ban on legislators having PACs, forcing existing ones to disband.
Rep. Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican and the lead House negotiator on the bill, said he expects an agreement to drop all proposals dealing with PACs and endorse Kobach's proposal.
“As far as I know, it's completely on track,” Kinzer said. “I'm not aware of any impediments.”
While Pauls said she and other Democrats have misgivings, she added: “I don't know that there are enough votes to keep it from passing.”