Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) publicly defended himself on Saturday after a federal judge found him in contempt of court, arguing that he shouldn’t be held responsible for what didn’t happen and shifting the blame to others.
U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson held Kobach in contempt of court last week, ruling that he had failed to fully follow her 2016 order temporarily blocking a Kansas law that required people to prove their citizenship when they registered to vote at the motor vehicle department. There were about 18,000 people who had failed to show proof of citizenship and as a result had their voter registrations placed “in suspense.” As part of her ruling, Robinson wanted those people to be made registered voters like any others.
Specifically, Robinson expected Kobach to send out two notices to those 18,000 people: a letter telling them that they were fully registered to vote in 2016 and a postcard informing them of their polling place. Kobach suggested he would do both, but in fact, he did not ensure that the postcards were sent out. He also failed to update the online state election manual to indicate that people didn’t need to prove their citizenship at the motor vehicle department.
As part of her contempt ruling, Robinson ordered Kobach to pay attorney fees to the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed the motion seeking to hold the Kansas official in contempt. The judge reserved a decision on any further remedies for when she rules on the merits of the underlying case against the Kansas law later this year.
Many Kansans see the postcards as a formal confirmation that they are eligible to vote, Marge Ahrens, the former co-president of the Kansas League of Women Voters, testified during the trial, which was held in Kansas City last month.
Over the weekend, Kobach told Breitbart News that the contempt finding was “ridiculous” and blamed local county election officials for failing to send out the postcards.
“She also wanted to make sure that all those voters got a notice telling them where their polling place is, the standard postcard that’s sent out in Kansas. And we instructed the counties to do so, but some of the counties didn’t get it done in time in the short period before the election,” Kobach said. “So the judge is holding my office in contempt for the failure of counties to follow the instructions that we gave them. It’s just ridiculous.”
“When really all it is, is some counties that didn’t send out both postcards, they only sent out one postcard,” he continued.
Kobach’s comments mischaracterize what he and his office actually did and said. A month before the 2016 election, Robinson specifically asked Kobach if the voters affected by her ruling would receive the postcards that Kansans are used to getting in the mail before an election.
“They will get the same notice that others ― that other voters get, that it notifies you of your polling place,” Kobach told the judge on Oct. 5, 2016.
But at a contempt hearing in March of this year, Bryan Caskey, the director of elections in Kansas and a Kobach staffer, said he had been confused as to whether local election officials needed to send out the postcards in addition to the court-ordered letter informing people they were eligible to vote. While Kobach and his lawyers had claimed Caskey verbally told local officials to send the postcards, Caskey testified that he could not verify that election officials in all 105 counties had sent them.
He later testified that he’d informally surveyed four local election officials as to whether they had sent the postcards after being told to do so in October 2016 and could confirm that just one had done so.
After the contempt hearing but before the judge ruled against Kobach, Caskey sent a letter to all election officials in Kansas instructing them that they should send out the postcards. As of April 3, he had received confirmation from 49 counties that the postcards had gone out.
Chris Biggs, a Democrat who served as Kansas secretary of state before Kobach (and whom Kobach defeated in the 2010 election), told HuffPost that while he hadn’t seen the specific communications at issue in the case, it was common for local election officials to seek guidance from the secretary of state’s office on how to enforce election law. Biggs said that he would have wanted to create a clear record of what he’d ordered local election officials to do.
“If I had a court order to do something, I would want to serve and have proof that I communicated in writing with every election official in the state,” he said.
During the contempt hearing, Robinson dismissed Kobach’s claim that he wasn’t responsible for the postcards failing to go out because he couldn’t force election officials in 105 counties to send out the postcards.
“The Court is troubled by Defendant’s failure to take responsibility for violating this Court’s orders, and for failing to ensure compliance over an issue that he explicitly represented to the Court had been accomplished,” Robinson wrote in her contempt order. “Defendant deflected blame for his failure to comply onto county officials, and onto his own staff, some of whom are not licensed attorneys.” (Kobach is a lawyer.)
“The letters from Plaintiffs seeking compliance with these issues were directed to Defendant. The motion for contempt was directed to Defendant. It was Defendant’s duty to ensure that the counties complied with the Court’s Orders, a duty this Court made crystal clear to him back on October 5, 2016,” she continued.
Biggs also questioned Kobach’s contention that he couldn’t make sure that county election officials sent out those postcards.
“He’s the chief election officer, so he would have the ability to advise them how they’re supposed to behave. And if they didn’t, he could seek appropriate action through the attorney general’s office and the local county attorneys, if necessary, to force them to perform their lawfully required duty,” Biggs said.
In his Breitbart interview, Kobach predicted that he would successfully appeal the contempt finding to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.