TOPEKA — Two long-time political operatives and a newcomer are facing off in the Republican primary for secretary of state, in which voter identification and election fraud have become key issues.
Shawnee County Election Commissioner Elizabeth Ensley, former Kansas GOP chairman and constitutional law professor Kris Kobach and J.R. Claeys, former president of the National Association of Government Contractors, are on the Aug. 3 ballot.
Claeys and Ensley both said they did not want to radically change the way the Secretary of State's Office operates. While both propose changes to streamline the way the office operates, they both said it has functioned well.
Kobach said the state's top election official should take on more of prosecutorial role to help combat election fraud. If elected, he would volunteer his services to work with the Attorney General's Office or other law enforcement prosecuting election fraud cases.
Kobach has gained national attention for his work on immigration legislation such as the new law in Arizona, which he helped write. With his legal background and experience, Kobach said, he is the perfect candidate to lead the office.
All three candidates support requiring identification for voters to cast ballots at the polls, but the details vary.
Kobach would like to require proof of citizenship for people to register to vote and a state-issued photo identification to cast a ballot. He said his experience as a constitutional law professor would be helpful in passing a law that would stand up to a legal challenge.
"Three-quarters of the battle is in drafting the law carefully and clearly in the first place," he said.
He would not include any exceptions, including for the elderly who might be living in nursing homes.
Ensley, who has worked in elections at the Secretary of State's Office and as Shawnee County election commissioner for about three decades, supports requiring photo identification at the polls but said the rules could not prevent legal voters from casting a ballot.
"Because you cannot wheel a hospital bed into the motor vehicle department, for our older citizens, senior citizens and disabled we will need to work out something for them," she said.".. Somehow we need to make sure they are not barred from the voting booth."
Claeys agreed with Ensley on the need to ensure that legal voters are not barred from casting a ballot. He suggested making the state identification card available for free and as accessible as possible.
"I think some people go out there and talk about fraud being the only reason (for voter ID)," he said, but an added benefit would be simplifying the process for poll workers and moving lines along faster.
"I will certainly advocate for the type that will secure our vote and make voting efficient and not deny people the right to vote," he said.
While Ensley has helped provide evidence to prosecute and convict 12 people of election crimes during her time as election commissioner and Claeys has worked as an international elections observer, neither characterized voter fraud as a rampant problem in Kansas.
"There is voter fraud in the state of Kansas," Claeys said. "Saying things like it is pervasive or something that is happening in every election or every county, I can't say that."
Ensley said voter identification would help allay some of the concerns about election fraud. "Sometimes there is not any evidence of election fraud, but you need to check it out," she said.
"Election officials always have to take every accusation seriously, they need to look into it and they need to protect voting. Because there will be somebody who tries to take advantage of the situation if we don't," she said.
Kobach sees election fraud as a growing problem and the reason he thinks the secretary of state should take on more of a prosecutorial role.
"I see this as a very significant threat to our right to vote," he said.
If elected, he said he wants to conduct a study comparing the voter rolls in Kansas to Department of Homeland Security records to find out how many illegal immigrants are registered to vote.
"We don't know the entire number, we just know people have been observed registering people outside the meatpacking plants," he said.
While the primary campaign has focused mainly on the office's election duties, the secretary of state also oversees business registration and several other record-keeping duties for the state.
Claeys said he wanted to make the office work more efficiently and reduce the number of forms and paperwork businesses have to handle.
"Anytime you have to think about paperwork in the Secretary of State's Office, you are talking about taking up a small business's time," he said.
Claeys said he also wants to ensure that fees stay low. He previously worked for the National Small Business Association in Washington, D.C.
Ensley said she also wanted to examine how the office's interaction with businesses could be simplified but noted that it is revamping its website and online business services.
Kobach thought the office should be more involved in business education and should promote education about the state and federal constitutions.
In addition to his national efforts to curb illegal immigration and work as a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, Kobach previously served as the chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.
In that capacity, a recent Federal Election Commission case implicated him and former GOP executive director Christian Morgan in misusing state party funds and, among other issues, failing to pay $18,000 in payroll taxes in 2008.
Kobach said the problems were not his fault; his responsibility was in hiring a bad executive director. "It is very difficult for a chairman to realize that an executive director is failing in his duties ... if I had known I would have fired him," Kobach said.