Guest Commentary

Missouri’s secretary of state needs the tools to investigate fraud

Jay Ashcroft, Missouri Secretary of State
Jay Ashcroft, Missouri Secretary of State

I read The Star’s Monday editorial, “Why is Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft stealing Kris Kobach’s lousy ideas?” and would like to respond. The editorial gave the impression that subpoena power and prosecutorial authority are the same thing, and they are not.

When the Missouri legislature debated Senate Bill 786 in 2016, giving the secretary of state prosecutorial authority, I fought against it. However, I do believe any office that is given the responsibility to investigate election violations must also be given the commiserate authority to fulfill its statutory responsibilities.

Some background information would have been helpful for readers. State law was amended in 2016 providing the secretary of state with investigative responsibility in regard to election complaints — before I was elected to that office. A full list of election offenses is included in the amended law, and it does not apply only to voter fraud, as The Star’s editorial implied.

There are at least 58 election offenses that my office has a responsibility to investigate. State law defines four classes of election offenses, one of which does include voter fraud. But they also include tampering with ballot boxes or voting machines, interfering with a person’s right to vote, tampering with or destroying ballots, and many other varied offenses.

Over the past two years, we have reviewed or investigated about 160 potential election violations in response to written complaints, which are submitted by mail or through an online submission form. When we receive a report of a potential violation, we are obligated by law to notify the person filing it within 30 days whether my office has dismissed the complaint or will investigate it.

While my office has the responsibility to investigate, it does not have power to subpoena documents that may be necessary to examine during the course of an investigation. In one instance, as we investigated a complaint regarding a special taxation district, our request for documents was denied by the district, arguing that the documents we requested did not fall within the open records definition of the Sunshine Law. In other words, as we investigated a potential election offense, we did not have the authority to require the district to provide the documents needed to do our job.

If my office is responsible for investigating election offenses, it only makes sense that we also should have the authority to subpoena documents. Otherwise, is there any reason to make my office responsible to “investigate” if we aren’t provided the tools to properly do so?

I am asking the state legislature to fix this. My office will investigate election complaints to the extent of our authority, but we need the proper tools to do it effectively. I have asked the General Assembly to address this gap in one of two ways: either by providing my office the authority to subpoena documents, or by removing the responsibility of investigating election complaints from my office. Let me conduct a proper investigation or move this responsibility to another office that has access to the proper tools.

Previous editorials by The Star have noted the “straightforward and stand-up way” I investigated the state’s former attorney general, and commended my determination to investigate the situation fully.

Shouldn’t a full investigation be the correct approach anytime there is a potential election violation? I believe so.

Jay Ashcroft is Missouri Secretary of State.