(TNS) — Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach kicked off the first meeting of President Donald Trump's Election Integrity Commission by citing more than 100 cases of non-citizens trying to register or registering to vote in Kansas.
"We have discovered 128 specific cases of non-citizens who either registered to vote or attempting to register to vote. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. One expert in the case estimated the total number could be in excess of 18,000 on our voter rolls," Kobach said Wednesday.
Critics questioned the accuracy of that number and said even if it were accurate, it is miniscule compared with the total number of Kansas voters, 1.8 million.
Kobach, who is co-chairing the commission, said at the Washington, D.C., meeting that Americans have had lingering doubts for some time about elections. He used the Kansas figure to bolster his longtime assertion that voter fraud is a significant problem nationwide.
The figure of 128 is based on a search conducted by the secretary of state's office. Kobach offered no names and did not say whether any of the people had voted. He also did not say whether his office was prosecuting any of the people.
A March affidavit by an assistant secretary of state contained in court documents filed July 14 in a federal lawsuit against Kobach said he had found 125 non-citizens who had either tried to register or registered. The figure appears to be for all time, both before and after implementation of the state's proof of citizenship voter registration law in 2013.
The affidavit, from Bryan Caskey, does not say how many cases were attempted and how many were successful registrations. It also does not say whether the people went on to cast votes.
Kobach spokeswoman Samantha Poetter referred reporters to the affidavit and said three more cases of non-citizens had been discovered since it was signed in March. She didn't answer questions about how many of the 128 were successful registrations vs. attempted registrations.
In the affidavit, Caskey outlined how he identified the cases. A January 30, 2017, comparison of non-citizen drivers licenses and the state's voter information system found 79 who had either tried to register or had registered.
Another 34 were identified by the Sedgwick County Election Office when staff attended naturalization ceremonies to register new citizens and discovered some were already registered.
Additional searches — such as a review of jury questionnaire forms — produced the other cases.
Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's voting rights project, cast doubt on the figure. The ACLU is suing Kobach in an attempt to stop enforcement of Kansas' proof of citizenship law. The Caskey affidavit is an exhibit in that lawsuit.
"We don't trust that number, and many of the cases appear to be mistakes by DMV workers offering registration to people who identify themselves as non-citizens (meaning it's the state's own mistake) — but even taking it at face value, it's equal to about 0.0007% of the 1.8 million registered voters in Kansas. When you weigh that against thousands blocked from registering — 1 out of 7 new applications since this law went into effect — it's a no-brainer," Ho said.
Ho, who has reviewed those cases as part of ongoing litigation, said Kobach has provided few concrete details about the people he says attempted to register illegally but were unsuccessful.
Ho said the ACLU has verified that in at least one of the cases, the person checked the box on a registration form saying they were a noncitizen, which kept them from registering. Ho said this was an example of the system working properly without extra restrictions.
The time frame for those cases stretches back at least 16 years, Ho said.
The 18,000 number cited by Kobach of potential non-citizens registered to vote in Kansas matches the number in a report by Jesse Richman, a professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia who wrote an expert report for Kobach in the proof of citizenship lawsuit.
Richman estimated the number of non-citizens who have registered to vote or attempted to register could range from 6,000 to 18,000. Critics say Richman's work is based on flawed methodology.
The Legislature gave Kobach the power to prosecute voting crimes in 2015. He had secured nine convictions as of May.
Kobach has prosecuted only one case of non-citizen voting. Victor Garcia Bebek pleaded guilty to voter fraud in April for voting three times between 2012 and 2014.
Bebek became a naturalized citizen in early 2017, and it was then that election officials discovered he had previously voted. The other convictions were for double-voting, where one person votes in multiple places in the same election.
Kobach's citation of Caskey's search and Richman's work came during his opening remarks of the Election Integrity Commission's first meeting, arguably the most high-profile platform yet for the Kansas official.
"This commission will have the ability to find answers to questions that have never been fully been answered before and to conduct research that has never been conducted before," Kobach said.
Kobach, who is running for governor, stood next to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who is co-chairing the commission with Kobach.
The officials emphasized that the commission has no preconceived determinations and will go where the evidence leads. Opponents of the commission say the panel is an effort to promote voter restrictions.
Kobach got the commission off to a controversial start several weeks ago when he made a nationwide request to states for voter information, including names, dates of birth and Social Security information. More than a dozen states have refused, and others are providing partial information.
On Wednesday, Trump implied the states rebuffing the panel had something to hide. He has previously made unsubstantiated claims that widespread voter fraud caused him to lose the popular vote to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
"If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they're worried about and I ask the Vice President, I ask the commission, what are they worried about? There's something. There always is," Trump said.
Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters, said the commission is undermining the public's confidence in elections. More than 3,000 people, many concentrated in Colorado, have cancelled their voter registrations after Kobach's information request.
"Despite their claims of having no agenda, they have entered into this voter 'study' with preconceived results," Carson said. "This fishing expedition for voter information is intended to lead to more voter suppression — not improving our election process."
Hunter Woodall and Bryan Lowry of The Kansas City Star contributed to this story.