Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state with a long history of pushing a stridently conservative agenda on voting rights and immigration, is back in the news again — this time, for the actions of one of his former underlings. Late last month, Kobach was granted permission by the newly-appointed executive director of a federal voting commission to require proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. The decision — issued unilaterally by Brian Newby, who previously worked under Kobach as an elections official in Kansas’ largest county — was a major surprise that was done without the say of the members of the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC), which had rejected Kobach’s request for the change twice before. The revised EAC guidance represented a major win for Kobach, who had been stymied by the courts in his efforts to fully implement his state’s proof-of-citizenship requirement. It is a blow to voting rights advocates who have opposed proof of citizenship requirements on the grounds that procuring the necessary documents will make ballot access harder people who are perfectly eligible to vote.
The proof-of-citizenship requirement is a union of Kobach’s years-long crusade for tougher measures targeting undocumented immigrants and for voting regulations that restrict access to the ballot. As a law professor, Kobach helped write the Arizona anti-immigration law SB 1070, which was eventually gutted by the Supreme Court. Since Kobach won election as Kansas’ top election official, he not only championed voter restrictions, but also aggressively pursued prosecutions of alleged cases of voter fraud. Experts widely agree that instances of actual voter fraud are extremely rare, especially when compared to the number of otherwise eligible voters believed to be disenfranchised by restrictions like voter ID.
Kobach’s ties to Newby, who was appointed as executive director of the EAC only in November, has brought the controversial proof-of-citizenship decision additional scrutiny. As the Johnson County Election Commissioner, Newby was appointed by Kobach’s predecessor, and re-appointed by Kobach in 2014 (the commissioners of the four largest counties in Kansas are appointed by the secretary of state.)
MSNBC called Newby’s and Kobach’s past working together “a friendly relationship,” pointing to Newby’s praise for Kobach on his blog, where he recounted that the comments Kobach’s made when swearing him in to his local post “made me kind of misty.” As the county commissioner, Newby also sat on a task force on implementing the proof-of-citizenship law.
In an interview with TPM earlier this week, Kobach defended the move and Newby’s authority to issue it. He denied that it was any special favor from a former colleague, and said the state would have requested the proof-of-citizenship requirement no matter who stepped into the role of executive director of the commission.