By Bryan Lowry
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who repeatedly has made questionable claims of rampant voter fraud, will co-chair President Donald Trump's new Commission on Election Integrity -- and civil rights groups and top Democrats are outraged.
Critics ridiculed the very creation of the commission on Thursday, as well as Kobach's role, saying it's intended to perpetuate the president's false claim that millions voted illegally in November.
The 12-member bipartisan commission will review claims of improper registrations and voting, fraudulent registrations and voter suppression, White House officials told McClatchy. Members will provide the president with a report in 2018 and may issue recommendations to the states.
Trump on Thursday named Kobach vice chairman of the commission. Vice President Mike Pence will serve as chairman.
"I'm very excited and honored to have this opportunity to serve the country," said Kobach, who explained that Trump first asked him to serve on the commission in February. He pushed back on the idea that the commission was set up with the specific goal of validating Trump's voter fraud claims.
"The commission does not begin with foregone conclusions," he said. "All members of the commission are approaching it with an open mind. ... The objective is to go where the facts lead us."
Almost immediately after his victory, Trump said that millions of people had voted illegally and deprived him of a popular-vote victory. He also said that there was unspecified voter fraud in three states he lost: California, New Hampshire and Virginia.
Critics said the commission's findings will be used to justify unnecessary restrictions on the right to vote.
"This commission is a fraud. And President Trump has chosen a fraud to be in charge of it," said former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Kansas City Democrat who founded Let America Vote, a national organization dedicated to defending voting rights.
The real purpose of the commission, Kander said, is to use taxpayer dollars to create the false impression that there is widespread election fraud to make it easier to pass restrictive voting laws at the state level.
"For over a decade," Kander said, "the Republican Party has made it a central part of their political strategy to push the myth of widespread voter fraud ... when the real problem they're trying to solve is there are certain groups of Americans who are unlikely to vote Republican."
Kobach, who is weighing a run for Kansas governor, said his position would be part-time and unpaid aside from travel reimbursement. He said it would not interfere with his duties as Kansas secretary of state.
Kobach said the commission would conduct the most expansive study of the issue of voter fraud to date and would have full-time staff from the vice president's office and the Department of Homeland Security.
"This is really a first-of-its-kind enterprise," Kobach said. "For the first time having a national body gather data from all 50 states. The objective of the commission is to bring those hard facts together on a national level."
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer dismissed the commission as a "clear front" meant to restrict access to the ballot box for Americans who are poor, older, African American or Latino.
"Putting an extremist like Mr. Kobach at the helm of this commission is akin to putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department," Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said in a statement.
The American Civil Liberties Union called on election administrators, academics and other public servants to refuse to participate in the commission. The panel is nothing but a pretext for disenfranchising Americans, said Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project.
"Skeptical doesn't even begin to describe our view of this," Ho said. "We have a president who has said he won the popular vote when he did not. We have a commission that will be led for all intents and purposes by the king of voter suppression, Kris Kobach. So there's no reason to believe that this commission will be anything other than a sham."
Ho said Pence is unlikely to play a very active role on the commission because he has so many other duties, so Kobach will wield significant power. Pence's office did not immediately respond to questions on Thursday.
Kobach is the only secretary of state in the nation with prosecutorial power. During his tenure as Kansas' top election official, he has championed some of the strictest voting laws in the country, including the state's controversial proof of citizenship law. That law requires voters to provide a birth certificate or passport to register.
Kobach expanded and continues to oversee the Interstate Crosscheck Program, which is used by 32 states to identify duplicate voters. Critics of the program say it has resulted in false positives. Kobach said that Crosscheck would release data on the 2016 election in the near future that will be relevant to Trump's claims of illegal votes.
Kobach has successfully prosecuted nine cases of voter fraud in Kansas since he took office six years ago, most recently the conviction of a man for voting in both Kansas and Texas. Preston Glen Christensen pleaded guilty and paid a $1,000 fine and court costs.
While other secretaries of state, as well as government and academic studies, say occurrences of voter fraud are rare, Kellyanne Conway and other top Trump advisers cited Kobach as the source of the president's unsupported claim that millions of illegal votes tipped the popular vote in Democrat Hillary Clinton's favor.
Kobach has provided no hard evidence, however. The author of one study he cited, the Cooperative Congressional Elections Study, has said it actually shows a rate of noncitizen voting of about zero.
Mark Kahrs, Kansas' Republican National Committeeman, said Kobach is an "inspired pick" for the commission, calling him a "leading voice on voter election fraud." Kahrs worked closely with Kobach on voting issues as a member of the Kansas Legislature.
"I think he's got strong opinions and positions, so I think it's more than likely that he'll go in with ideas about what needs to be done to reform our election law," Kahrs said.
Judges who have ruled against Kobach in voting rights cases have accused him of engaging in "word play meant to present a materially inaccurate picture of the documents" and dismissed his assertions about voter fraud because they were backed by "scant evidence" or based on "pure speculation."
After the election, Kobach appeared to be a contender to lead the Department of Homeland Security. He was photographed taking a plan for the agency into a Nov. 20 meeting with Trump.
That plan contained a reference to voter rolls and is now part of a legal battle between Kobach and the ACLU, which is seeking its disclosure as part of an ongoing voting rights lawsuit against Kobach's office. 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 documents. Kobach said Thursday that he has still not decided whether to appeal the ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. He said the documents "aren't nearly as exciting as all of the briefing on them suggests."
Jonathan Shorman of The Wichita Eagle and Anita Kumar of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.
(c)2017 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)