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H. Edward Flentje: Kobach a demigod or a demagogue?

  • Published Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach again placed himself and Kansas in the national spotlight and left Kansans wondering whether he is a demigod or a demagogue on state elections.

Demigod refers to “one so pre-eminent in intellect, ability, power, beneficence or appearance as to seem to approach the divine.” Demagogue, on the other hand, is defined as “a political leader who seeks to gain personal or partisan advantage by specious or extravagant claims, promises or charges.”

Kobach instructed local election officials to prepare voter rolls into a two-tier structure for voting.

One category of Kansas voters, who sign a sworn statement of citizenship on a federal registration form, will be allowed to vote only in elections for federal offices. A second category of Kansas voters, who meet the nation’s strictest requirements for proof of citizenship as established by Kansas lawmakers on advice of Kobach, will be allowed to vote in all elections: federal, state and local.

Kobach’s actions represent his latest episode in cleverly exploiting national inaction on immigration reform and ingeniously linking immigration to voting. He uses the historically low-profile, ministerial office of secretary of state, in combination with his side practice in immigration law, to gain national attention for himself and the state.

For those crusading against illegal immigration, Kobach appears as demigod. He brandishes credentials as Eagle Scout, White House Fellow and professor of constitutional law with degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford. He protects the integrity of elections by championing restricted access to voting. He advises lawmakers on measures to crack down on illegal immigration and, when challenged, defends their actions in court. He carries the crusaders’ case nationally and gains support from the Republican Party and many of its candidates.

For those who advocate immigration reform and lifting unnecessary barriers to voting, Kobach appears as demagogue. He concocts the issue of widespread voter fraud to win the office of secretary of state. He hypes stories of voting by noncitizens to promote questionable measures that restrict voting and place thousands of potential voters in suspension. He uses his public office to expand his lucrative law practice.

Kobach’s recent action has produced both administrative and political fallout. His two-tier voting procedure has been labeled a “nightmare” by one local election official, increasing costs and further complicating local election administration. Following up on thousands of suspended voters has already expanded local workloads and strained local budgets.

This latest chapter further augments Kobach’s reputation as a Republican renegade. Republican state lawmakers have become wary of his shenanigans and quietly buried his anti-immigration initiatives that have found favor in other states. Grover Norquist, a national tax-policy ally of Gov. Sam Brownback, went to Topeka last January and took a shot at Kobach, declaring “people can get attention with outrageous positions … but it’s not constructive for the country, it’s not constructive for the modern Republican Party.”

While Kobach gains national fame, whether as demigod or demagogue, a political question remains: Will the state’s Republican leaders – Brownback, his legislative allies and members of the state congressional delegation – continue to stand aside as Kobach eclipses them in the spotlight, divides Kansas Republicans and diverts public attention to disenfranchised voters, rather than to core issues in their red-state model of governance?

H. Edward Flentje is a professor at Wichita State University.

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