Politics & Government

Bills target Kobach’s voter fraud legacy; 3 1/2 years, no illegal immigrants caught

A big piece of Kris Kobach’s legacy appears to be on its way out as Kansas lawmakers move forward on parallel tracks to repeal the authority of the secretary of state to prosecute election crimes.

The House Judiciary Committee is considering one bill to do that, introduced by Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita. The House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice is considering a slightly different version requested by Attorney General Derek Schmidt last week.

Either would revoke the authority the secretary of state now has to take people to court if they violate laws related to voting.

Kobach, a lawyer, fought for years to get that authority when he served in the post, finally winning the battle in 2015.

He was convinced that it held the key to stop what he believed was widespread fraudulent voting by illegal immigrants.

Kobach’s laser-like focus on illegal immigration and voting fraud vaulted him to national prominence with frequent appearances on network cable TV and an appointment as an advisor to President Trump.

But Kobach is now out of state government after deciding not to seek re-election and losing the November governor race to Laura Kelly.

In the 3½ years since Kobach was given the authority, his office prosecuted between 10 and 15 cases of voting fraud.

None of the defendants were illegal immigrants, said Katie Koupal, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office.

Two defendants were legal immigrants who were entitled to be here but not to vote, she said.

The others were citizens who double-voted in the same election, usually because they owned property in multiple states, she said.

Scott Schwab, who replaced Kobach as secretary of state, isn’t a lawyer and wants to refocus the office on its traditional responsibilities of registering businesses and administering elections, Schmidt said.

That would leave the prosecution of voting crime to state and county prosecutors, the way it was before Kobach convinced lawmakers and former Gov. Sam Brownback to let him do it.

“The current secretary has told me he doesn’t want that authority, doesn’t have criminal prosecutors on his staff, and (since 2015) we’ve created our fraud/abuse litigation division at the AG’s office,” Schmidt said.

He said the existence of that unit means voter fraud crimes will no longer have to compete for prosecutors’ attention against homicides, child sex crimes and dangerous felonies.

Carmichael pre-filed his bill, House Bill 2018, before the session started. It’s the same as a bill he filed in 2017 that failed.

He said authority to prosecute crimes should never have been given to the secretary of state because it creates a conflict of interest.

“The secretary of state and his office are often times the witnesses needed to prove the case,” Carmichael said. “You can’t prosecute the case and use your own employees as the witnesses, so it needs to be put back in the hands of professional prosecutors.”

While the House has a rule that two committees can’t process virtually identical bills, Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin and the chairman of Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, ruled the two bills were different enough to both proceed.

Carmichael’s bill simply deletes the secretary of state from the list of state officers who can prosecute election crimes.

Schmidt’s bill is slightly more complex, including a duty for the secretary of state’s office to report suspected fraud to a state or local prosecutor.

Carmichael said he hopes both bills pass because it would give the House more options working with the Senate in conference committee to get a final bill to the governor’s desk.

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Senior Journalist Dion Lefler has been providing award-winning coverage of local government, politics and business in Wichita for 20 years. Dion hails from Los Angeles, where he worked for the LA Daily News, the Pasadena Star-News and other papers. He’s a father of twins, director of lay servant ministries in the United Methodist Church and plays second base for the Old Cowtown vintage baseball team.