A devastating legal blow last week to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s voter fraud platform will, in all likelihood, land in the lap of one of six men vying for his job.
That person could decide whether to press or kill Kobach’s appeal of a federal ruling that blocks the office from making would-be voters dig up birth certificates or other documents that show U.S. citizenship.
In interviews with the Kansas News Service, Republican candidates, with the exception of one moderate, leaned toward forging ahead. They cited the need to defend state laws or the actions of state agencies.
“I would keep those cases going,” said Rep. Keith Esau, chairman of the House elections committee. “That’s what Kansas wants. That’s what we passed as a law.”
The range of opinions among Esau and his competition mean the issue is a point of differentiation in the five-man Republican primary.
Depending on who wins that August primary, the question could be a major issue in the general election against Democratic candidate and former Google executive Brian McClendon. He says he’s more concerned that Kansas blocked tens of thousands of voter applications in recent years than that a dozen non-citizen votes slipped through the cracks over two decades.
“At every stage, we’ve lost,” McClendon said. “I would stop investing in court cases like this and start focusing on solving problems in the state.”
The Kansas proof of citizenship requirement has been caught up in multiple state and federal lawsuits since taking effect in 2013.
The two lawsuits addressed last week were brought by the League of Women Voters and Kansans who were blocked from voting, with help from the American Civil Liberties Union and lawyers volunteering their time.
Chief District Judge Julie Robinson of the District of Kansas combined the suits and heard their cases at a dramatic trial last March. She struck down the voter registration requirement as illegal and unconstitutional. She also held Kobach in contempt for defying court orders and ordered him to get six hours of extra legal training after repeatedly running afoul of courtroom rules.
Legal experts say Kobach’s appeal, which needs to be filed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals by mid-July, could take more than a year to play out. Kobach is running for governor and leaves his current office in January, meaning his successor would inherit the role of defendant
Rep. Scott Schwab, a former House elections chairman who helped shepherd the proof of citizenship requirement into law, said court outcomes often change upon appeal.
“This case is far from over,” he said. “Obviously, the judge had a bias against Kris. And maybe Kris deserved it, maybe not. I don’t know, I wasn’t in the courtroom. I just know sometimes personalities affect court decisions.”
An outlier among Republicans was Dennis Taylor, a more moderate candidate who led four state agencies under governors Mike Hayden and Sam Brownback.
“I don’t really see that there’s a basis for successful appeal,” said Taylor, a lawyer. “I think our resources would be much better spent auditing the elections and ensuring we have paper ballots in all counties.”
Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio. She can be reached at Twitter @Celia_LJ.