Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach put on the witness stand a researcher from a national center that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a hate group.
The witness, Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, strongly rejected any suggestion of racism during a federal trial Monday as Kobach began his defense of a 2013 Kansas law that requires residents to prove their citizenship.
The American Civil Liberties Union is suing to overturn the law. The ACLU contends it is unconstitutional and has denied thousands the ability to vote.
The outcome of the trial will determine whether thousands can vote this fall, when Kansas elects a new governor. Kobach is a Republican candidate for governor.
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The ACLU brought up Southern Poverty Law Center’s criticism of the Center for Immigration Studies during its cross-examination of Camarota. The ACLU was seeking to show bias in his testimony.
The ACLU asked Camarota if he was aware that the law center had called co-founder John Tanton a “racist architect” of an anti-immigration movement in America. Camarota said he knew that the law center had published items “very critical” of Tanton.
The Southern Poverty Law Center says the Center for Immigration Studies has circulated racist writers and associated with white nationalists. The law center calls CIS an "anti-immigrant hate group."
When Kobach offered Camarota a chance to respond, Camarota called any suggestion that the center is motivated by racial animus “outrageous.”
"The Southern Poverty Law Center routinely takes people they disagree with and tries to taint them with some racist brush," Camarota said.
He added that the center’s board includes multiple non-white individuals.
Camarota also testified under ACLU questioning that he has said the English language is "one of the things that holds the country together." He also testified he had once used the term "professional ethnic."
Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, in an email said Camarota can speak for himself but added it is a "standard term for someone whose ethnicity is his job — an ethnic activist."
Camarota said his analysis of Kansas voter registration doesn’t show a statistically significant change from 2010 to 2014, the last mid-term election before the proof of citizenship law went into effect and the first one after.
The ACLU contends that public interest in the 2014 election could account for why voter turnout and registration didn’t change significantly between 2014 and 2010. Camarota said that interest “hypothetically” could explain the lack of change.
He also disputed testimony from Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida who last week said the law has had a disproportionate effect on young voters.
The ACLU’s cross-examination of Camarota grew tense, with an attorney questioning Camarota’s credentials. He acknowledged that he had not published peer-reviewed articles on voter turnout or registration, but later said he has published peer-reviewed articles on Census data.
Angela Liu with the ACLU repeatedly pressed Camarota for yes or no answers to questions, leading to cross-talk at times.
"She can only take down one voice at a time or we’re going to kill her," Judge Julie Robinson said of the court reporter at one point. "And then I’m going to kill everyone else."
Jesse Richman, of Old Dominion University, began testifying late Monday. Richman has estimated that up to 18,000 non-citizens may have registered to vote in Kansas.
His testimony was repeatedly halted by objections, prompting rising tensions. Richman appeared to interrupt the judge, prompting her to order him not to speak unless asked a question.
“You’re not here to trash the plaintiff. You’re not here to argue with me,” Robinson told Richman.
Kobach also called Jo French of Osage City. She was born in 1941 in Arkansas but lost her birth certificate. She told the federal court that a state hearing to affirm her citizenship in July 2016 went smoothly.
An ACLU attorney asked French about comments she made after the July 2016 hearing.
"I didn’t realize I had to go through this to be a citizen of a state. I was working to just be a citizen. And I thought, ‘I don’t look funny, I don’t talk funny, I’ve been here all of my life.’ And I just couldn’t imagine having to go through this procedure to prove that I live here and that I can vote," French told The Topeka Capital-Journal at the time.
French said in court that she was being funny. "But yes, I did say that," she said.
French praised Kansas’ proof of citizenship requirement. Every state should have a similar requirement to stop voter fraud, she said.
She also said she didn’t have any trouble gathering the documents she used to prove her citizenship at the hearing. Those included a family Bible, a baptism record and a high school transcript.
French produced chuckles at times during her testimony. She said the hearing process had also helped her get a Kansas drivers license, so she can drive "roll the windows down" and listen to Rod Stewart.
But her main point, that she repeated several times, was that she was determined to vote in 2016.
"I’ll tell you what. I am a voter. I started out in one party and changed to the other and that is my privilege as being a citizen of the United States and it’s my privilege to be that and I cannot imagine not having that right," French said.