A federal judge lambasted Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) on Tuesday for failing to take adequate steps to comply with a court order and inform thousands of potentially confused voters that they were eligible to cast ballots.
The voters were the victims of a Kansas state law requiring people to prove they were U.S. citizens when they registered to vote at the motor vehicle department. Under the law, which went into effect in 2013, people who couldn’t provide that proof were first sent notices that their voter registration was incomplete and then, if they didn’t prove their citizenship within 90 days, were removed from the voter rolls altogether.
In 2016, U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson issued a preliminary injunction blocking the law. According to the transcript of a status conference that October, the judge asked whether the affected voters ― about 18,000 at the time ― would receive the postcard that Kansans typically receive before an election informing them of their polling location. Kobach assured her that his office was taking all steps necessary to make sure those individuals ― and anyone else who failed to prove their citizenship when registering to vote ― would be treated the same as other voters.
Overall, the American Civil Liberties Union estimates that the requirement to prove citizenship impacted around 35,000 voters. The ACLU is currently facing off against Kobach at trial in Robinson’s courtroom in Kansas City in an effort to permanently overturn the law.
Despite Kobach’s apparent promise, the League of Women Voters of Kansas has said they’d heard from voters who had not received postcards ahead of the 2016 election. Earlier this year, the ACLU asked the judge to hold Kobach in contempt of court for failing both to send out the postcards and to update the Kansas election manual to reflect the fact that the proof-of-citizenship law was on hold.
In Tuesday’s contempt hearing, Kobach and the state’s elections director conceded that they had merely given verbal direction to county election officials to follow the court’s orders, but never provided express written instructions to send out postcards, according to KCUR and the Topeka Capitol-Journal. Moreover, instead of updating the election manual, Kobach had removed it from the Secretary of State’s website.
Robinson appeared to be “livid” at Kobach’s response, according to KCUR. She accused him of telling people only that they could vote in 2016 and of not doing enough to avoid confusion, the Kansas City Star reported. Robinson pounded on her desk as she told Kobach that she had made it clear that those affected were to be considered “fully registered voters,” according to the Kansas City Star.
Kobach is the state’s chief election official, but he and elections director Bryan Caskey argued that each county has its own process for sending out the postcards and each does it slightly differently. Kobach said he could request that the states follow Robinson’s order, but could not compel them to send the postcards. ProPublica reported that Kobach also repeatedly sought to cast blame on other officials in his office who could have given the order to send postcards, but did not.
The judge did not seem to be persuaded. When Kobach said that all he could do was make sure counties were following the law, Robinson cut him off and said that her order was the law, according to the Kansas City Star. He said that she had never issued a written order specifically telling him to send out the postcards, the Star reported. But Robinson said she hadn’t issued such an order because Kobach had told her that he was working to get the postcards sent out. She added that Kobach had an ethical obligation as a lawyer to tell her the truth.
The contempt hearing came on the final day of an eight-day trial challenging the Kansas law. Kobach made the unusual choice to represent his own office in the case, and throughout the trial he and his legal team repeatedly failed to follow basic rules for introducing material into evidence. Robinson was patient at the beginning of the trial, walking his lawyers through how to present evidence. But she lost patience with them a few times after ACLU lawyers accused Kobach’s team of trying to present evidence before the ACLU had an adequate chance to review it.
Robinson said she would issue a written ruling on the motion for contempt. The judge is expected to rule later in the larger case.