The League of Women Voters in 2014 honored Brian D. Newby, then the Johnson County election commissioner, for his work in helping people register to vote. The league this year sued him for allegedly doing the opposite. Yet, as Newby said recently in a brief phone interview, “I’m the same person with the same values” as that award recipient. Recent headlines tell a different story, one of a spectacular fall into unfamiliar controversy. Once regarded as something of a rock star among the nation’s election gurus, Newby has drawn intense fire from more than one direction after becoming executive director of a bipartisan federal elections panel in November. Voting rights groups have asked a federal court to invalidate one of Newby’s first actions taken at the helm of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Some have alleged that a unilateral decision he made was a gift to his former boss, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who had offered high praise of Newby to the federal commission considering his appointment.
In letters that the new executive director sent in January to Kansas, Georgia and Alabama, Newby granted requests to require that their residents provide proof of U.S. citizenship when filling out a federal mail-in form created to make registration simpler for national elections. That decision and a stinging audit earlier this year of his administration of the Johnson County office have surprised people in Kansas who admired Newby’s innovative thinking.
“He had an unusual combination of skills that dealt with technology and computerization … and he could communicate clearly,” said former county commissioner Ed Peterson.
Newby’s priorities seemed to shift, however, following the 2010 election of Kobach as secretary of state, Peterson said. The secretary of state appoints and can dismiss the Johnson County election commissioner. Though Newby had built a national reputation on using technology to make voting easier, “Brian’s attitude on that changed,” Peterson said. “He wasn’t overtly against making voting easier, but his advocacy went away. …