Who Is Kris Kobach, and Why Should You Care?

Politics Features Kris Kobach
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Who Is Kris Kobach, and Why Should You Care?

Extremely short version of why this is news: Trump’s vote-fraud trickster just got dissected in court.

What Happened?

The Kansas City Star summed it up:

A federal judge will decide whether thousands can vote in Kansas this fall after the conclusion of a two-week trial that saw a leading candidate for governor scolded and scrutinized. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican candidate for governor, led the legal team defending the state’s proof of citizenship requirement, a policy he crafted, against a pair of federal lawsuits.

Trump’s voter fraud claims can be traced back to Kobach. You see why the ruling in Fish v. Kobach matters. This trial echoes across the nation. The fate of Kobach will influence whether or not the states can get away with legalizing voter suppression. Tens of thousands of Kansans have been blocked at the polls.

On March 19, the Star reported that:

The trial wrapped up Monday evening, but Kobach still faces a contempt hearing Tuesday.

And so it was on Tuesday, the first day of spring—when good creatures return to life—that U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson reamed Kobach good. She took him to task for ignoring the Court’s commands:

“I’ve had to police this over and over and over again,” U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, told Kobach during a contempt hearing in Kansas City, Kan., on Tuesday. “I made it clear they’re fully registered voters.”

It was an injection of circus sugar into the old femoral artery.

Can You Give Me Some Context?

As they say in teen-movie voice-overs, you’re probably wondering how we got here. In January 2011, Kobach became the Secretary of State in Kansas. He pushed for an unnecessary voting law: The Kansas Secure and Fair Elections Act, or SAFE. It was a reactionary sham designed by a man who’s spent most of his public life bashing immigrants.

Indeed, Kobach was one of the main necromancers behind SB-1070, the Arizona statute which gave the police the right to detain anyone guilty of driving while non-white. “Kansas will be to stopping election fraud what Arizona is to stopping illegal immigration,” Kobach said.

Two of Kobach’s predecessors as Secretary of State—the Democrat Biggs and the Republican Thornburgh—said that voter fraud wasn’t an issue. But what did it matter? Kobach’s brainchild was rolled out during the far-right Brownback governorship, so Kobach was able to sneak his plot into law. Soon after, everyone starting suing Kobach. The ACLU has sued the Secretary four times. This current tussle is suit number five.

In an editorial for the Star, Arias and Magdaleno described Kobach’s law as “white nationalism.” SAFE requires already-affirmed voters present paperwork to vote. Arias and Magdaleno note that

Kansas’ onerous law violates the National Voter Registration Act and disproportionately impacts people of color. Nearly nine percent of voting age African Americans lack access to birth certificates and passports, compared with 5.5 percent of whites. The plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, are now fighting to have the law struck down permanently.

How Much Voter Fraud Exists In Kansas?

The state of Kansas, home of Superman, has approximately 1.8 million registered voters. How many of those are cheaters? A solid 129. Eleven of whom actually voted. Most of were likely just clerical errors, or simple screw-ups. This is Kobach’s “evidence.” Won’t somebody please think of the children?

The New York Times, usually a respecter of institutional authority, spared not the rod when addressing Kobach’s crusade: “Kris Kobach’s Voting Sham Gets Exposed in Court,” read one editorial title. The voter-fraud myth is an article of faith, the Times said:

Fraud like this is so rare as to be almost unmeasurable, and yet its specter has led to dozens of strict new laws around the country. Passed in the name of electoral integrity, the laws, which usually require voters to present photo IDs at the polls or provide proof of citizenship to register, make voting harder, if not impossible, for tens of thousands of people …

The Times noted that the majority of these people tended to be “disproportionately minorities” and other Democratic-leaning voters.

The high priest of this faith-based movement is Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and gubernatorial candidate who has been preaching his gospel of deception to Republican lawmakers for years. He has won plenty of converts, even though he has failed to identify more than a tiny handful of possible cases of fraud. In his eight years as secretary of state, he has secured a total of nine convictions, only one of which was for illegal voting by a noncitizen; most were for double-voting by older Republican men.

Kobach seemed like an impressive fighter when he was punching down at marginalized people, but in the more exacting environment of the courtroom, Kobach has withered. He cracked like a wicker man under a steam press. His “braintrust” didn’t perform so well, either:

On Tuesday, one of Mr. Kobach’s witnesses, a political scientist, Jesse Richman, testified that up to 18,000 noncitizens have registered or tried to register in Kansas. When the A.C.L.U.’s lawyer asked him about his methods for analyzing the state’s list of suspended voters, Mr. Richman said that, among other things, he flagged foreign-sounding names. What about a name like “Carlos Murguia,” the lawyer asked. Would he flag that one? Yes, Mr. Richman said. He was then informed that Carlos Murguia is a federal district judge who sits in the courthouse where the trial is being held.


Why Was Judge Robinson Upset?

The ACLU sued Kobach over this question: does federal law allow Kansas (that is, Kobach), to lay down requirements? Kobach has not been meeting Robinson’s orders:

… Kobach could be facing a contempt order from a federal court after a judge on Tuesday tore into the Kansas Republican about repeatedly skirting her orders. [Robinson] chastised Kobach, a candidate for governor, at a contempt hearing for suggesting that her previous orders have left any room for ambiguity. ... Robinson in 2016 ordered Kobach to fully register thousands of Kansas voters who had registered at the DMV but had failed to provide proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate or passport, as required by a Kansas law that Kobach crafted.

If Kobach gets the nomination for governor, this ruling will affect who can vote for him in the fall.

[Robinson] scolded Kobach for initially informing the voters covered by her order that they were registered only for the 2016 election and for failing to ensure that they receive the same postcard notifications about their registration as other voters. “I made it clear they’re fully registered voters,” she said, pounding her desk with her hand. ... Kobach said at one point that he can only require county election officials to follow the law, prompting the judge to cut him off. “This is the law,” she said, reminding him that her order carries the full weight of the law and that it’s his duty as the state’s chief election officer to ensure counties comply with it.

It wouldn’t be the first time the Secretary has been billed: Kobach got charged a thousand dollars in 2017 for misleading the court about documents he shared with the White House.

But That’s Kansas, What Is Kobach’s Connection to Trump?

Trump appointed Kobach as Vice Chairman and spiritual majordomo of his farcical Voter Fraud Commission. You might remember it from January—the Commission got abolished before it ever met. But Kobach’s value to the right goes deeper than this. Kobach is the major right-wing salesman for the Legend of Voter Fraud. That is his purpose in life. The state of Kansas gave Kobach the chance to turn fairy tales into concrete policy. You see the results. At one point, the man was considered for a Homeland Security post. Without opposition, the Republicans could take SAFE national. The states would be just the beginning.

Why Would Someone Spend His Career Doing This?

Imagine the kind of man who’d insist that sinister voting is Issue Number One, and you can guess the rest of Kobach’s politics. He was an Obama Birther. He argued for a Muslim Registry.

Before 2011, Kobach lived the life of your typical right-wing hatchet-man. On the surface, nothing too shocking: Harvard, Yale Law, soul extracted at age 19 through the sinuses—you know, the works. In college, Kobach fell under the sway of the influential scholar Samuel P. Huntington. In 1968, Huntington advocated herding the South Vietnamese into rural concentration centers while we bombed their country. In the 80s, Huntington advised the apartheid government of South Africa. After both of those smashing successes, Huntington spent the rest of his life writing books about the upcoming war of civilizations, muttering darkly about Mexicans and Muslims, twenty years before Trump made it the cornerstone of his Presidential platform.

Kobach took the lesson to heart. He eventually went into government, working for the Bush administration. After 9/11, according to the Chicago Tribune, Kobach slapped together a program using the 1940 Alien Registration Act:

The registration prgram that Kobach helped craft mandated that men from 24 predominantly Muslim nations and North Korea report to government offices so they could be fingerprinted, photographed and questioned. More than 83,000 did so. The government subsequently moved to deport 13,740 of the men because of alleged immigration violations discovered during the interviews. The power exercised in the most recent domestic registration was extraordinary, but Kobach said it was necessary and that nationality had to be used because of scarce resources.

According to Richard Steele, the original ARA was written for the purpose of expelling the Australian labor activist Harry Bridges. Kobach and his boss, Ashcroft, made unapologetic use of the power. Kobach had found his true calling. He would become a saint to the raving-uncle clique, who had serious concerns about having to press 1 for English whenever they called the Turkey Help Hotline at Thanksgiving. Kobach spent the next several years pursuing his twin passions: running for office and filing lawsuits that targeted immigrants. He did this in city after city: in Hazelton, Pennsylvania; in Farmer’s Branch, Texas; in Valley Park, Missouri. This was an expensive task. According to the Center for American Progress, by January 2011, Kobach had:

run up an estimated $6.6 million in fees for his efforts, which are affiliated to the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a group tied to the extremist Federation for American Immigration Reform.

When Kobach came to power in Kansas, he had his chance to put everything he’d learned to use. The SAFE statue was his chance, and he took it.

Hey Hey Hey, What Is Going On Here?

As the Times pointed out, by sheer, unbelievable coincidence, the key to protecting us from “voter fraud” turns out to be disenfranchising people of color. I mean, what are the chances?

Whatever else you can say about him, Kobach has gazed into the seeds of time … and seen doom for his side. D’Vera Cohn in Pew Research points out that by 2065, America’s population will have increased by 117 million souls, “with no racial or ethnic majority group taking the place of today’s white majority … About one-in-three Americans would be an immigrant or have immigrant parents, compared with one-in-four today.”

Since the Sixties, conservative ascendancy has rested on a bedrock of aggrieved white voters. For the far-right to live, white votes must outpace the votes of POC. The mid-century civil rights battles were about more than lunch counters and buses. The forces of reaction understood that once POC had reliable access to the ballot, conservatism would be on the backfoot forever. That’s why kneecapping the Voting Rights Act was a priority for every far-right activist since Nixon. The Roberts Court crippled the VRA back in 2013. That gave states the chance to jimmy with the ballot box.

Suppose you’re a far-right activist. How do you keep your faction alive in multiethnic Future America? Well, there are a couple of ways of get around the votes of POC: You could mandate fewer polling stations in poorer neighborhoods (since the consequences of these conservative policies have deliberately placed POC in dilapidated areas). You could fight against making Election Day a national holiday. But the new favorite tactic, the one that Kobach really worked on, is the good old Voter Fraud story. However, Voter Fraud is like a teen gamer looking respectable in a fedora: it just doesn’t happen that often. A rational man won’t work. You need a true believer, someone who will repeat the myth over and over again. So enter Kobach.

Now, many of our greatest statesmen have been gifted wordsmiths: Jefferson and Lincoln come to mind. Kobach is not in their league. But as a pure writer of fiction working in the halls of government, Kobach has no peer. He sailed on a wave of schools and fellowships until he got the chance to disenfranchise thousands and thousands of people.

And he did so with a story, an article of faith. And for a while, that was enough. Until the rendezvous with Robinson, where the storyteller was unable to bridge the gap between what he wanted, and what actually existed. For the first time in Kobach’s public life, the evidence mattered. We should live in hope: a Kansas where every vote matters is a dream worth having.