Politics & Government

Kobach, ACLU fight at trial with thousands of votes on the line

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach AP

Secretary of State Kris Kobach and the ACLU fought at a trial Tuesday over a law that could affect whether thousands of Kansans will be able to vote this fall.

The outcome will affect people like Charles Stricker, a manager at the Ambassador Hotel in Wichita who was the first witness. Stricker thought he had registered to vote in 2014 when he signed up at a DMV, but it turns out he wasn’t. He hadn’t provided proof of citizenship as required by a 2013 Kansas law.

The ACLU has sued in federal court to permanently block the law, saying it is unconstitutional and has denied thousands of Kansans the ability to vote.

Kobach, the law’s foremost champion, said some estimates show thousands of non-citizens are on the state’s voter rolls. And he says the law has cut down on non-citizen registrations.

The ACLU contends that citizens like Stricker are being caught up in the law instead.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and National ACLU attorney Sophia Lakin argued in court over whether the state can legally exclude federally registered voters from state and local elections if they don't provide documented proof. (9/21/2016)

Stricker testified that he found out that he wasn’t registered when he showed up at a polling station to vote.

The episode left him frustrated and confused.

"For me, it’s really about the principle of the matter. I don’t think the average Kansas citizen should have to sue the secretary of state to get registered to vote. It’s a very convoluted, confusing process," Stricker said.

"I want to make it easier for people to vote and I think that’s what we should be doing."

The Kansas law passed the Legislature with strong majorities. It requires people registering to vote to show a passport, birth certificate or other identifying document.

Kobach says the law is working. Since 2000, 129 non-citizens have either registered or attempted to register. Many of them were blocked from registering by the proof of citizenship law, he said.

"The 129 is just the tip of the iceberg…we know the iceberg is much larger," Kobach said.

In effect, however, the law has placed roadblocks to citizen registrations, the ACLU said. The League of Women Voters of Kansas has had greater difficulty performing voter registration drives, ACLU attorney Dale Ho said.

"Enforcing this law is like taking a bazooka to a fly and the collateral damage in this case has been thousands of voters," Ho said.

Kobach said Kansas has taken numerous steps to help voters obtain proof of citizenship documents. During cross-examination, he sought to show that Stricker didn’t make efforts to provide his proof of citizenship, either.

Through questioning, Kobach noted that Stricker works a few blocks from the Sedgwick County election office and that he has a smart phone that he could have used to send a photo of his birth certificate to the office.

"I thought when I left the DMV I had done everything I had needed to," Stricker said.

Kobach ended his questioning by asking if a camera crew was following Stricker. The ACLU objected, and federal Judge Julie Robinson sustained the objection.

"It goes to bias and motive to exaggerate," Kobach said.

Kobach suggested another witness was also biased. He read aloud tweets from Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida, that disparaged Kobach.

One tweet referenced reports that a staffer for Vice President Mike Pence had called Kobach an “(expletive) sandwich.”

McDonald said he didn’t have any bias against Kobach. “They’re tough, but they’re tweets,” McDonald said.

The trial is expected to last several days. Robinson will deliver a verdict in the bench trial.

Members of the public packed the Kansas City courtroom and a couple dozen more watched from an overflow room.

The trial represents a key moment for Kobach, who is running for governor. A loss in federal court could give his opponents further ammunition. On the other hand, he can tell conservative voters that he mounted a full defense of the law.

He has attracted national attention for his fight against voter fraud and has defended President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that voter fraud cost him the popular vote in the 2016 election.

Kobach served as vice chair of Trump’s Election Integrity Commission before Trump abruptly dissolved it early this year. The commission provided Kobach a brief but powerful platform to promote his voter fraud fight.

His decision to represent himself in the trial is unusual. He has said he is saving the state money because Kansas would have had to hire outside attorneys otherwise.

The 2018 campaign for Kansas governor is producing a large amount of candidates. Here are the Republican, Democratic, and Independent candidates

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman