Pointing to Kris Kobach of Kansas.

Photographer: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Kansas Model for Voter-Fraud Bluffing

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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If President Donald Trump wants a good gauge of how much voter fraud he will find if he launches a federal investigation, one of his campaign advisers, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, is a good person to ask.

Kobach, you might remember, became a national hero among conservatives by championing restrictions on voting, with the avowed purpose of battling the scourge of voter fraud. During Trump's presidential transition, he was photographed meeting Trump while holding a document listing plans to bar foreigners and deal with "criminal aliens." Illegal immigration and voter fraud are intimately linked in conservative mythology, where dusky undocumented immigrants are forever handing election victories to Democrats by voting illegally.

Kobach is a smart lawyer and a skillful salesman. "Voter fraud is a well-documented reality in American elections," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal after becoming Kansas's secretary of state in 2011.

Well-documented.

In the essay, Kobach cited a 2010 state representative race in Kansas City, Missouri, that was "stolen" when one candidate allegedly received more than 50 votes illegally cast by Somali citizens.

In his own state of Kansas, Kobach continued, 221 incidents of voter fraud were reported between 1997 and 2010. And even as a newbie in his office, he wrote, he had already found 67 aliens illegally registered to vote. The total number, he said, "will likely be in the hundreds."

A stolen election. Hundreds of incidents of voter fraud. And 67 aliens. Kobach claimed he had the proof. Yet there were some nagging little words -- alleged, reported.

How was the allegation of illegal Somali votes resolved? According to the Kansas City Star, suits were filed claiming illegal voting by Somalis, but no proof could be found.

What about the 221 instances of reported voter fraud? As it happened, Kansans reported more sightings of UFOs between 1997 and 2010 than instances of voter fraud -- people report all sorts of things -- even though more than 10 million votes were cast in that period in statewide elections alone.

And, of course, Kobach's final point -- that aliens had registered to vote -- is the ultimate tell. Why is Kobach talking about registration when the crime is fraudulent voting? Could it be that he had no evidence of fraudulent votes at all?

Kobach's Wall Street Journal essay was hardly an anomaly. Running for office in 2010, he said ballots were being cast by Kansas voters who were actually dead. He even named one politically active corpse, Alfred K. Brewer. But Brewer vehemently denied the charge -- at least the part about being dead.

Kobach had a good thing going, misleading conservatives eager to believe his spiel, along with others too busy to check the fine points of shifty language. But then he made a costly error. He asked the Kansas Legislature to give him the power to investigate and prosecute the rampant voter fraud that he kept claiming was taking place. In 2015, he was granted his wish.

"His powers are pretty broad," e-mailed Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. "He can investigate at will, and prosecute 'voting crime' (not just fraud, per se) at will."

I asked Kobach's office for his voting fraud record. An aide sent me an Excel spreadsheet of his charges and prosecutions. He's had eight cases in Kansas since 2015, and six convictions. His first four convictions all involved American citizens age 60 or over, including a 77-year-old. 

The paltry results in Kansas are no surprise. In a nationwide study released in 2014, law professor Justin Levitt found 31 credible cases -- cases, not convictions -- of in-person voter fraud in a pool of 1 billion votes cast nationally. The George W. Bush administration conducted an aggressive voter-fraud investigation that concluded in 2007 with little to show for the effort. 

"So is Kobach chastened by his failings?" asked the Kansas City Star. "Heck, no. He recently doubled down on his ugly and unsubstantiated attacks on immigrants while defending voter ID laws."

If Trump is foolish enough to pursue a federal investigation of voter fraud to soothe his hurt feelings about losing the popular vote, he will face the same reality that exposed Kobach. "His record on prosecutions is dismal," noted Kubic of the ACLU.

Smart Republicans understand that voter fraud is a political slogan, not a pervasive problem. That's why Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell demurred when asked whether Trump should embark on a goose chase of his own. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he has seen "no evidence" that fraud influenced the election.

Trump lacks their political discipline or grasp of reality. And there is good reason to fear that any investigation ordered by Trump would merely be a pretext for further vote-suppression efforts. But perhaps Kobach will convince the president that actually investigating fraud is a bad idea, since it will only serve to expose a very different kind of fraud. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net