President Trump named Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach to a commission to examine voter fraud and other election issues on Thursday, elevating Kobach’s profile as he weighs a run for governor.
Kobach will serve as vice chairman of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, while Vice President Mike Pence will chair the panel.
“I’m very excited and honored to have this opportunity to serve the country,” Kobach said.
The commission and Kobach’s appointment drew criticism from civil rights groups and other critics who described the creation of the panel as a farce intended to perpetuate a false narrative that millions of people voted illegally in the November election. They said the commission’s finding will be used to justify unnecessary restrictions on the right to vote.
Kobach said the commission members were approaching their work with an open mind. He pushed back on the idea that the commission was set up with the specific goal of validating Trump’s voter fraud campaign.
“The objective is to go where the facts lead us,” Kobach said.
The commission is expected to review policies and practices that “enhance or undermine the American people’s confidence in the integrity of Federal elections – including improper registrations, improper voting, fraudulent registrations, fraudulent voting, and voting suppression,” the White House said.
“The president is committed to the thorough review of registration and voting issues in federal elections, and that is exactly what this commission is tasked with doing,” said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Kobach said his position would be part time and unpaid aside from travel reimbursement, but the commission would have full-time staff from the vice president’s office and the Department of Homeland Security. He said it would not interfere with his duties as Kansas secretary of state.
Kobach said it would be the most expansive study of the issue of voter fraud to date. “This is really a first of its kind enterprise. For the first time having a national body gather data from all 50 states,” he said.
Kobach backs Trump claims
Kobach has previously said he advised Trump to investigate voter fraud. Shortly after taking office in January, Trump on Twitter promised a “major investigation into VOTER FRAUD.”
Trump has also stated that millions of illegal votes cast by noncitizens tipped the popular vote in the 2016 election to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton despite his victory in the Electoral College. Those claims have never been verified.
Trump told Fox News in January that he would establish a commission to be led by Pence to investigate voter fraud.
“We’re going to look at it very, very carefully,” he said.
While other secretaries of state, as well as government and academic studies, say occurrences of voter fraud are rare, Kobach has supported Trump’s claim. He has provided no hard evidence, however.
Earlier this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on CNN that he thought states should investigate.
“This sort of thing is handled at the state level, and the Democrats always claim there’s no election fraud at all,” he said. “That is, of course, not true – election fraud does occur. There’s no evidence that it occurred in such a significant number that would have changed the presidential election, and I don’t think we ought to spend any federal money investigating that.”
Pick draws fire, praise
Former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Kansas City Democrat, said the purpose of the commission was to reinforce a false narrative that voter fraud is widespread and make it easier to pass restrictive voting laws.
“This commission is a fraud. And President Trump has chosen a fraud to be in charge of it,” Kander said of Kobach.
Clay Barker, director of the Kansas Republican Party, said Kobach was a “good pick” for the commission.
Barker said that the changes to Kansas voting law made in the past six years, including enacting voter ID requirements, have made the state’s elections more secure. He noted that the proof of citizenship requirement passed the Legislature with bipartisan support in 2011.
“He’s obviously very intelligent and he’s spent a lot of time digging into elections and different ways there can be problems with voters, whether it’s voter fraud or unintentional mistakes. … He’s been a leading face and voice on that issue,” Barker said of Kobach.
Mark Johnson, a board member of the Kansas chapter of the ACLU, said he would reserve judgment on Kobach’s appointment and that he hopes the secretary will put aside any personal beliefs and participate with an open mind.
“That being said, I am concerned that Secretary Kobach has made strong statements concerning the existence of voter fraud and that he will enter the investigation with a predisposition to find voter fraud,” Johnson said.
Kobach’s place on the commission may give him more national prominence at a time when he is considering whether to run for governor in 2018. He said in April he would not take a job in the Trump administration and would remain in Kansas.
He has said he expects to make a decision within the next few months.
It is not clear whether Kobach was ever offered a job in the administration. Although he was widely believed to be under consideration for a job, his prospects seemed to fade after Trump took office.
Michael Smith, a political science professor at Emporia State University, said he was surprised Kobach didn’t land a job in the Trump administration. He called him a “perfect fit” with Trump on policy.
Smith questioned whether Kobach would be satisfied with the job of governor.
“I don’t know what’s inside Kris Kobach’s mind, but my own personal opinion is it’s just not a good fit. He doesn’t like the day-to-day pull and haul of governor,” Smith said.
Legal battle continues
Kobach is the only secretary of state in the nation with prosecutorial power. Last week, he announced his ninth voter fraud conviction since he gained the power in July 2015.
After the election, Kobach was seen as a possibility to lead the Department of Homeland Security. He was photographed taking a plan for the agency into a Nov. 20 meeting with Trump.
The plan, which was only partially visible in the photo, included a reference to voter rolls.
That plan is now part of a legal battle between Kobach and the American Civil Liberties Union, which is seeking its disclosure as part of an ongoing lawsuit against a Kansas law that requires voters to provide proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or passport, when they register to vote. The ACLU argued that if Kobach lobbied Trump on changes to the National Voter Registration Act, then the documents may contain material relevant to the case.
A U.S. federal magistrate judge in April ordered Kobach to turn over the plan. On Wednesday, a U.S. federal district court judge upheld the order and gave Kobach until Friday to produce the document.