The House tentatively voted Wednesday to give Secretary of State Kris Kobach and future secretaries of state the authority to prosecute alleged voting fraud.
The narrow vote came after a lengthy debate over Kobach’s motivation for wanting prosecutorial authority and whether it would help or hurt Kansas elections.
The bill also grants the state’s attorney general authority to prosecute election crimes, clarifies what constitutes an election crime and increases penalties.
Democrats and some Republicans sought, yet failed, to derail Kobach’s quest for prosecuting authority by offering a flurry of amendments, any one of which could have sent the measure to a conference committee and possibly delayed it until after the session’s end.
Rep. John Rubin, a Shawnee Republican and a sponsor of the bill, argued that election crime is too serious to be left to local prosecutors.
He said voting crime “strikes at the very core of our democratic government,” which is “one person, one legal vote.”
Rubin said harm comes when illegal votes dilute the voting power of legal voters.
Dennis Highberger, a Lawrence Democrat, said nobody questioned the validity of Kansas elections until a few years ago.
“It’s all due to the extreme partisanship of our current secretary of state,” Highberger said.
Rubin and Rep. Russ Jennings, a Lakin Republican, argued at length over whether granting prosecutorial power to the secretary of state would be an unprecedented extension of power to a state department outside traditional law enforcement.
Rubin likened the proposed new authority to powers held by the insurance commissioner, securities commissioner and the state lottery department.
Jennings said Rubin was overstating those offices’ power to prosecute. He said that could only be exercised when the departments acted on behalf of and at the request of the attorney general.
“They do not have independent authority. They have derived authority,” Jennings said. “If the attorney general does not deem those individuals worthy of having that authority, that authority is not conveyed.”
Rubin disputed that.
“We have recognized time and time again in this Legislature that the folks in the offices with a designated mission statement and the expertise and experience in a particular area should have prosecutorial authority in that area,” Rubin said.
The bill has already passed the Senate. If the House holds its 63 votes for the bill into the final approval tally, the measure will go to the governor’s desk for signature into law. The final vote is expected Thursday.