With the Republican primary for governor heading to a likely recount, Secretary of State Kris Kobach both leads the vote by a slender percentage, and he also heads the office that will administer the recount. On Friday, he handed over his election responsibilities to his top deputy, Assistant Secretary of State Eric Rucker.
Still, the appearance of a conflict of interest is reinforced every time someone checks the state election results site, which is adorned with a smiling picture of Kobach at the top right.
Whether or not Kobach is a good administrator of our state’s elections, he should not be both player and referee at the same time. As soon as the state Legislature returns to work in Topeka next January, they should begin debate on distancing our chief election administrator from electoral politics, with a goal of a constitutional amendment by the next secretary of state election in 2022. The two major party candidates to replace Kobach — Republican Scott Schwab and Democrat Brian McClendon — should commit to supporting a process of de-politicization of the office they seek.
While most states elect their secretaries of state, several appoint them instead. Appointment by a governor or legislature still involves elected officials in the process, and holders of the office would still be connected to political parties. However, appointment would at least keep the secretary of state from having to ask for support from the same voters whose right to vote he or she is entrusted with protecting. Upwardly-mobile politicians like Kobach would likely seek out different offices to advance their careers, and the secretary of state would function more like other appointed positions, such as commerce secretary.
An even more effective strategy would be to impose a “resign-to-run” requirement on the position. Many states have such requirements for municipal officials like mayors, and sometimes even state legislators. If we had such a requirement, Kobach would have had to resign months ago when he filed to run for governor, and the primary and recount would be administered by a short-term appointed replacement.
Resign-to-run requirements are a bad idea for most offices because they can keep qualified people from running for higher office, or remove from office elected officials. It is good for Kansas democracy that Sens. Laura Kelly and Lynn Rogers will remain in the state Senate representing residents of Topeka and Wichita, even if they lose the race for governor and lieutenant governor.
Eastern Kansans will benefit from the three Republican state senators who unsuccessfully sought the nomination in the 2nd U.S. House District in eastern Kansas — Steve Fitzgerald, Caryn Tyson and Dennis Pyle — serving out the two years remaining on their terms.
The office of secretary of state is different, as its most important and most prominent job is to ensure that elections are free and fair. It is reasonable to require Kobach and his successors to give up the privilege of serving in the role when they participate in the elections administered by the office.
Our current method for choosing our chief election official is yielding the worst possible outcome, with a candidate for governor supervising the process that will determine his career advancement. Kobach served our democracy by recusing himself from the process, but that still leaves his appointees and hired staff running the recount.
As Kansans we cannot remedy this problem for 2018. But if we and our elected officials move quickly, we can fix it by 2022.
Neal Allen is chair of the political science department at Wichita State University.