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.
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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. …
“Some were thinking, poor Brian. He didn’t answer to us (the Board of County Commissioners) directly. He answered to the state. He’s kind of caught in the middle.”
Newby said he didn’t change. Rather, county politicians who approve the election office’s budget but want more control over the person in charge ganged up on him, he said.
“I had been fighting this for years,” he told The Star. Newby said the power struggle with county officials “absolutely” made his decision to move to Washington, D.C., easier.
Within a few months of Newby’s exit, an audit requested by the County Commission turned up more than $39,000 worth of questionable services and products purchased in the last five years of his 11-year tenure as election commissioner.
Newby, who had fielded a number of “best practices” awards while in Johnson County, was chided in the audit for taking limousine rides to catch flights — expenses that should have been covered by his $300-a-month car allowance.
County auditor Ken Kleffner portrayed Newby’s office as a department in disarray. It bought high-tech goodies — including Google smart glasses and some Macbook Pro laptops still in their original packaging — without clear documentation of the reason for buying them, the report said.
Sharon Watson, spokeswoman for Johnson County Manager Hannes Zacharias, said she was “not aware of issues to indicate that this was anything political or a power struggle” between the county and Newby or Kobach’s office. “We believe the audit speaks for itself,” she added.
Newby called the audit “inaccurate, incomplete and misleading” in a lengthy defense he posted March 18 on his Election Diary blog.
Election Diary describes itself as “a blog written by an election geek for election geeks.”
Some of Newby’s more intriguing posts examined what poll workers ought to know about personal electronic devices such as Google Glass, phone cameras and selfie sticks brought into polling places.
In 2013, Newby’s blog received the Guardian Best Practices of the Year Award from the National Association of Election Officials.
Newby’s county office also was honored at a national conference in 2009 for promoting a mobile app that helped voters find the right polling place. The app was partly credited for shrinking the number of Johnson Countians showing up at the wrong place from 4,267 voters in the 2004 elections to fewer than 670 in 2008.
The Wall Street Journal was among publications that took notice of another Newby brainchild called iPad, iRegister.
Providing iPad tablets to voting rights advocates visiting U.S. naturalization ceremonies, Newby’s office was able to document a new citizen’s eligibility to vote by snapping pictures of citizenship papers for the county’s records.
For iPad, iRegister, the League of Women Voters of Johnson County presented Newby with its 2014 Making Democracy Work Award. At the ceremony in Overland Park, Newby invited several of his office staffers to share in the honor.
“Not all award recipients necessarily see their work as a team effort,” recalled Melissa Carlson, communications director for the League of Women Voters of Kansas. The group now is a party to the federal suit filed in February against Newby and the Election Assistance Commission.
Saline County, Kan., Clerk Don Merriman also has been an admirer of Newby.
But when Newby issued his decision allowing Kansas to require proof of citizenship from applicants completing the federal voter registration form, Merriman was among the first election officials to object.
Before then, “I had nothing but accolades for that man,” Merriman said last week. “A lot of election officials followed his lead in the ways of training their election workers.”
Newby was first tapped as Johnson County election commissioner in 2005 by Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh, a Republican. With his reappointment in 2010 by Democratic Secretary of State Chris Biggs, Newby was reported to be the first election commissioner in state history to earn appointments from both political parties.
In 2014 Kobach reappointed him.
Critics now contend that Newby’s ties to Kobach — one of the nation’s fiercest advocates for cracking down on illegal immigration — may have poisoned Newby’s judgment when supporting Kobach’s position on proof-of-citizenship requirements with federal election forms. Those forms list no such requirement.
Newby has been attacked for making the decision without a public comment period or a commission vote.
“What the executive director (Newby) has done here is contrary to the commission’s past actions,” said Brennan Center for Justice counsel Jonathan Brater. The center is representing voting rights plaintiffs in the federal suit.
Newby told The Star that the commission’s past executive directors also had made decisions regarding instructions on the federal forms.
To some, the timing involving Newby and Kobach could hardly appear more suspicious.
In June 2015, both learned of Newby becoming a finalist in the Election Assistance Commission’s executive director search. Kobach told The Star last week that he had not known until then that Newby was seeking the position.
Newby confirmed his finalist status in an e-mail to Kobach dated June 20, 2015: “I wanted you in the loop. … I also don’t want you thinking that you can’t count on me in an upcoming period that will tax our resources.”
Kobach said that Newby’s “count on me” reference applied to the work he was continuing to do in Johnson County, not on the prospects of getting the Washington job, as Kobach said some reports have insinuated.
Kobach offered at least one of the federal commissioners a glowing endorsement of Newby before he was selected, Kobach said.
But Johnson County officials had already alerted Kobach earlier that year to concerns they had with Newby’s management of the election office.
Kobach said that “we didn’t have any hard facts in front of us” for the county’s concerns to change his high regard for Newby. “We wanted to see more evidence before we jumped to any conclusion,” Kobach said.
Kobach also was familiar with tensions over the county funding Newby’s office expenses and salary while having no power to hire or fire the election commissioner.
Johnson County spokeswoman Watson said county officials raised their concerns about Newby’s performance with Kobach’s office in April 2015. Although Zacharias approved some of Newby’s purchases, others were credited to an assistant election commissioner’s purchasing card, which Newby could approve, Watson said.
The sequence of events last year continued to raise questions.
In November 2015, soon after the Election Assistance Commission announced Newby’s hiring, Kobach submitted his request to amend the federal voter registration form for Kansas applicants.
“We would’ve made the request regardless of who got the (executive director’s) job,” Kobach said.
But, say the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, Newby had already made clear his support for Kobach’s position when Newby in 2014 submitted to the federal commission comments backing an earlier Kobach request to require proof of citizenship with the federal registration application.
“The commission has addressed this matter several times over the last decade and voted to decline requests to add conflicting language to the federal voter registration form,” said Democratic commission member Thomas Hicks.
After Newby approved the requests of Kansas, Georgia and Alabama, Hicks said in a statement that Newby’s actions defied established Election Assistance Commission policy and should be withdrawn.
Hicks said last week that the lawsuit precludes the commission from taking any immediate corrective action.
“We’re waiting to hear back from the judge,” Hicks said. “Hopefully, any day now.”
Critics point out that the little-known federal commission is supposed to make voting simpler, not more complicated.
The panel was created by a 2002 act of Congress that sought to prevent the types of voting debacles that left the results of the 2000 presidential contest in doubt for weeks. Yet one decision from its new director out of Johnson County has left its own procedures and federal election policies up in the air for months.
“In a way I feel betrayed,” said Dolores Furtado, a former state legislator and Johnson County commissioner. She was president of the League of Women Voters in Kansas during Newby’s time in the county post.
For his part, Newby told The Star he can’t be looking back.
“I’m focused now on the very important job of helping administer a presidential election,” he said.