It’s a warm afternoon in the small Kansas town of Newton (population 19,105) and the local Republican Party is holding an ice cream social in a neighborhood park. The crowd tends towards the older end of the age range and is almost entirely white.
A tall, pleasant-looking, slightly beefy man, appearing a bit like a former high school star who’s since gained a few pounds, sits at picnic table chatting amiably with townspeople while eating vanilla ice cream and wearing a purple T-Shirt with “Kansas Secretary of State” stenciled over the breast pocket. He looks like a typical plaines state politician, doing what one would expect a typical politician might be doing on a summer afternoon: schmoozing (if that’s a word they use in rural Kansas) with his party faithful.
The man’s name is Kris Kobach and he is indeed the Secretary of State of Kansas. Although state-level Secretaries of State hold important powers—among other things, they are generally responsible for supervising elections—few have much of a national political profile.
Kobach was already fairly prominent in conservative political circles and in the Koch network. The Kansan drafted Arizona’s S.B. 1070, what the ACLU called the “Driving While Brown Law,” that empowered local police to pull over drivers and ask for proof of their immigration status. Most of the Act was overturned by the Supreme Court. Yet the Harvard, Yale Law School, and Oxford-educated politician was largely unknown outside Kansas.
That’s recently changed with Kobach’s appointment as Vice-Chair of Donald Trump’s “Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” to investigate alleged voter fraud and propose countermeasures. Kobach has drawn nationwide headlines by asking that every State government provide his Commission with extensive lists including full names of registered voters, dates of birth, party registration, last four digits of Social Security numbers and voting history. Forty-five states loudly refused to honor the request, although some may protesteth too much. Twenty-eight states, mostly Republican-run, had already sent Kobach these files months earlier—not to Washington but to his office in Topeka, Kansas.
A rumpled, slightly balding reporter, looking like he wandered off the set of Billy Wilder’s old newsroom movie, “The Front Page,” approaches Kobach holding a microphone with the logo of a local TV station. Like most politicians, Kobach seems rarely to have seen a microphone he doesn’t like, and at first is more than happy to chat with the reporter. The reporter’s name is Greg Palast, and, while also not quite a household name, he’s done extensive investigative reporting for the BBC, and Rolling Stone, among others, and has been called by The Guardian, the “most important investigative reporter of our time – up there with Woodward and Bernstein". On camera, he’s a bit like a cross between Hunter Thompson and Colombo.
In a Rolling Stone article in August, 2016, as well as in the documentary “The Best Democracy Money Can Buy,” and the accompanying book with an introduction by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Palast suggested that Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton, in no small measure by “stealing it.” The means would be voter suppression techniques championed by Kobach, particularly a multi-state effort called “Interstate Crosscheck,” which bounced qualified, mostly-minority, voters off the rolls in key swing states.
Operation Crosscheck’s list contains the names of over seven million people with the same first and last names, who are registered to vote in more than one state. For example, if a common name like James Brown, or Jose Hernandez appears on the voter rolls in both Virginia and Michigan, the voter’s name may be purged from the rolls in both states. Palast’s investigation found that 41,637 voters were purged from the rolls in Virginia on this basis. According to his statistical analysis, 1.1 million voters, overwhelmingly voters of color and the poor, were purged from the rolls nationally. It was enough to move the Electoral Vote in key swing states from Clinton to Trump and possibly determine the election.
Accompanied by a small camera crew, Palast approaches Kobach with a friendly smile. “Hey, I want to congratulate you,” Palast exclaims. “ You are the number one fraudulent voter hunter in the United States.” Kobach smiles, shakes Palast’s hand, and says, “Thank you very much”.
After a brief break, during which Kobach and Palast stand next to each other, hands over hearts, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, things get more serious. Palast pulls out a copy of the Crosscheck list he obtained from Virginia and asks why James Evans Johnson of Virginia is identified as the same voter as James P. Johnson of Kansas. Kobach responds that Crosscheck’s list “would not yield such a match”. But Palast points out that this is the very list that Crosscheck gave Virginia, based on which it purged over 41,000 voters. At this point, Kobach, still eating his ice cream, pulls away, while several supporters move in between Kobach, Palast, and the camera. An older woman puts her hand over the camera lens, and it goes black.
Soon after Trump’s victory, Kobach appears on camera again, this time shown visiting President-Elect Trump at Trumps New Jersey Country Club, armed with a memo alleging massive double-voting and proposing a campaign to stop it. Shortly thereafter, based on Kobach’s allegations, Trump begins claiming that between three and five million Clinton voters were, in Kobach’s much-used words, “Double Voters.”
Flash forward to May, 2017, and Kobach stands next to President Trump and Vice President Pence in the Rose Garden as Trump announces that Kobach will lead Trump’s new “Voter Integrity Commission” to root out alleged voter fraud and double voting, allegations that are disputed by most voting experts.
In mid-July the Commission held its first public meeting from which the public barred from attending in person. Trump opened the meeting with remarks focused on alleged double voting and voting by illegal immigrants and proclaiming it must be stopped.
The Commission is Crosscheck on steroids, now fueled by the power of the Presidency, and is likely to be used to justify further voter suppression in coming elections. If Trump and Republicans used voter suppression to steal the 2016 election, there’s reason to be even more worried about the 2018 and 2020 elections.
It may be Americans, more than Russians, who are the biggest threat to our democracy. Time for a new Voting Rights movement?