TOPEKA – Secretary of State Kris Kobach would gain the power to prosecute election fraud under a bill that the Kansas House narrowly gave first-round approval Wednesday.
The measure would stiffen penalties for an array of election crimes and add the secretary of state and attorney general to a list of officials allowed to prosecute the offenses. The House expected to take a final vote Thursday.
Kobach has pushed to gain the authority since taking office in January 2011 and if approved by the House, the bill would go to Gov. Sam Brownback for his possible signature.
Kobach is the architect of state laws that require all voters to show photo identification at the polls and new voters to provide proof of their U.S. citizenship when registering. He contends those policies have curtailed election fraud, but Democratic Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger from Lawrence said in debate on the bill that Kobach has exaggerated the frequency of fraud incidents.
“Up until a few years ago, I had never heard anyone question the fairness of a Kansas election, but that has changed and it’s all due to the extreme partisanship of our current secretary of state,” Highberger said.
Others expressed concern that Kobach might bring charges in cases where county and district prosecutors believed people did not intentionally break the law.
But Republican Rep. John Rubin from Shawnee defended the bill as “critically important if we want to stand for full and fair elections” and “the standard of one legal voter, one legal vote.”
The measure advanced Wednesday on a 63-57 vote, with the exact number of House members voting “yes” that would be needed for passage Thursday. Four Republicans and one Democrat did not vote Wednesday.
The Senate passed the bill, 23-15, in February, but it has divided the House’s 97 Republicans.
During a meeting of GOP House members earlier in the month, Republican Rep. Erin Davis from Olathe said that she believed county and district attorneys could adequately review and prosecute election fraud cases, and such activity was “far outside of the duties of the secretary of state.”
Republican Rep. Russ Jennings from Lakin attempted to attach two amendments to the bill. One would have eliminated the portion giving prosecutorial authority to Kobach and the other would have delayed the changes until after the next election.
Both amendments were defeated in tight votes.