TOPEKA — Secretary of State Kris Kobach would have new powers to prosecute election crimes under legislation given initial approval Wednesday in a razor-thin House vote.
The House gave an early OK to Senate Bill 34 in a 63-57 vote. If the House now approves the bill in a final vote it will go to Gov. Sam Brownback.
But the outcome of the final vote – which requires 63 votes — seems far from certain. Multiple Democrats voted in favor of the bill in a failed effort to use a procedural maneuver to later kill the bill. At least two Republicans who would likely vote in favor of the bill were also absent.
Kobach has sought the power to prosecute for some time. He fought his re-election campaign against Democrat Jean Schodorf portraying himself as tough on voter fraud.
The bill would also upgrade penalties for several voting offenses to felonies from misdemeanors.
In an interview after the vote, Kobach expressed satisfaction with the early vote.
“I’m very pleased. The vote on the bill comes not a moment too soon,” Kobach said.
The secretary said more than 100 cases of potential double voting in the 2014 general election has been identified. He said in the identified cases, the names, dates of birth, and last four digits of Social Security numbers of Kansas voters match voters who also cast ballots in other states.
Debate on the House floor centered on a series of amendments that would have stripped out provisions of the bill opponents found objectionable. The bill’s leading proponent, Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, successfully urged lawmakers to reject the amendments.
Rubin argued that amending the bill would force a conference committee with the Senate. This late in the session, a conference committee would likely kill the bill for the year as lawmakers look to adjourn as soon as the state’s budget issues are solved.
County attorneys for whatever reason are not interested in prosecuting election crimes, Rubin said. Election fraud is a serious crime, he said, striking at the heart of democracy.
“This bill remains critical to me if we want to stand for free and fair elections,” Rubin said.
The closest lawmakers came to amending the bill came in a change offered by Rep. Russell Jennings, R-Lakin, that would have stripped away prosecutorial power for the secretary of state from the bill, which also boosts penalties for election crimes. The amendment failed in a 60-61 vote.
Jennings said having three entities – county attorneys, the attorney general and the secretary of state — going after election crimes could lead to confusion.
“It creates a scenario where you could have a race to the courthouse. And whoever files first gets to prosecute. And there’s only of the three in this conversation that really wants to get to prosecute and I really want him to file papers and keep good records, not prosecute,” Jennings said.
Other amendments failed by larger margins.
Kobach himself was referenced multiple times, at times in an unflattering light. Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, said Kobach has been an excessively partisan secretary of state and has given money to candidates even as he is charged with overseeing elections.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, made a failed attempt to amend the bill to delay the granting of prosecutorial power until after the next general election.
“When I went to vote for secretary of state last time, I was not voting for a prosecutor,” Carmichael said.
Rubin called the amendment “political.” Kobach said his desire for prosecution power had been an issue in his campaign and that he had said repeatedly he would seek it.
Rubin said several of the proposed changes had been previously debated in the House Judiciary Committee and defeated. The committee sent the bill to the House floor without making changes after the Senate approved it in February in a 23-17 vote.