When Kris Kobach was first running for office in Kansas in 2010, he claimed he’d found evidence that thousands of Kansans were assuming the identities of dead voters and casting fraudulent ballots – a technique once known as ghost voting. Kobach even offered a name, Albert K Brewer of Wichita, who he said had voted from beyond the grave in the primaries that year. But then it emerged that Albert K Brewer, aged 78, was still very much alive, a registered Republican like Kobach, and more than a little stunned to be told he’d moved on to the great hereafter. No evidence emerged that anyone had ghost voted in Kansas that year. Seven years on, as Donald Trump’s point man on reforming the US electoral system, Kobach has not backed away from those same scare tactics – no matter that he is frequently called a fraud and a liar, and his allegations entirely baseless. On the contrary. Backed by a president who, days after assuming office, claimed that 3 to 5 million fraudulent ballots had been cast for Hillary Clinton, Kobach is enthusiastically spreading stories of voter impersonation on a massive scale, of out-of-state students voting twice, and of non-citizens casting illegal ballots.
As vice-chair of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, his mission to root out “fraudulent voter registrations and fraudulent voting” is sending chills down the spines of election experts and voting rights activists who believe he is intent on instituting a sweeping wave of new voter suppression laws.
Vanita Gupta, who headed the justice department’s civil rights division under President Obama, calls the commission “a pretext … to kick millions of eligible voters off the rolls and undermine the sanctity of our election systems”. Already in conjunction with a commission hearing in New Hampshire on Tuesday, a Kobach ally proposed instituting a system of background checks on voters as strict as the checks liberal groups want to impose on gun buyers.
Kobach did not respond to an interview request from the Guardian.
While it may seem astonishing to see such tactics being deployed in the world’s most powerful democracy, they cannot be attributed solely to the rise of Trump. In truth, the politics of electoral combat have been heating towards boiling point for a decade and a half – and are the product of a political system that has never, in more than two centuries, resolved basic questions of democratic accountability and is thus unique in the developed western world.