Inside a federal courtroom in Washington earlier this year, the presiding judge peered down in disbelief as a Justice Department official told him that the Obama administration would not defend a tiny elections agency but was instead siding with civil rights groups suing the government. “Unprecedented,” U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon said from the bench. “I’ve never heard of it in all my years as a lawyer.” From the back of the packed courtroom emerged someone else to argue for the federal agency: a tall, clean-cut figure in a dark suit, carrying a sheaf of papers, who had traveled more than 1,000 miles that day to make his case. “Your honor, Kris Kobach, Kansas secretary of state,” he told the judge. He went on to defend the actions of the director of the elections agency who had single-handedly rewritten voter registration rules, prompting an immediate challenge from civil rights groups.
Kobach, 50, first entered the national spotlight several years ago when he advised Mitt Romney on the idea of “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants during the 2012 presidential campaign. A former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, Kobach also wrote Arizona’s strict “show me your papers” immigration law, and he has helped lead the fight against President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
But now Kobach is the gladiator in a different battle — a major figure in a national movement to add more requirements for Americans to vote or register to vote. Since the Supreme Court struck down in 2013 a key part of the Voting Rights Act, Kobach has been at the center of many legal skirmishes over voting requirements that have popped up nationwide.