It’s a warm afternoon in the small town of Newton, Kansas – 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, who looks like he might be a former high school sports star who’s since gained a few pounds, sits at picnic table chatting amiably with townspeople. He’s 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 Plains state politician, doing what 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. Secretaries of State like him do hold important statewide powers – among other things, they are generally responsible for supervising elections. But few have achieved the national political profile and influence that Kobach enjoys.
Kobach’s Rise to Power
Kobach was already prominent in conservative political circles and in the Koch network before the Trump presidency. Back in 2010, the Kansan drafted Arizona’s S.B. 1070, a law that empowered local police to pull over drivers and ask for proof of their immigration status. The ACLU has called this anti-immigrant legislation, much of which was later overturned by the Supreme Court, the “Driving While Brown Law.”
Yet few in the public knew the name of this Harvard, Yale and Oxford-trained Kansas politician before May. That’s when Trump appointed Kobach as Vice-Chair of of his “Advisory Commission on Election Integrity” to investigate and propose measures to counter alleged voter fraud.
Kobach has drawn nationwide headlines by asking every State government to 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 – just not to Washington, but to his office in Topeka, Kansas.
Back at that picnic in Newton, 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 he is more than happy to chat with the reporter.
The reporter’s name is Greg Palast, who while also not quite a household name, has done extensive investigative reporting for the BBC and Rolling Stone, among others. The Guardian calls him 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 S. Thompson and Columbo.
In a Rolling Stone article in August, 2016, as well as in the documentary and book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy, Palast suggested that Trump would defeat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election, in no small measure by “stealing it.”
The means of theft would be voter suppression techniques championed by Kobach, particularly through the multi-state database he created called “Interstate Crosscheck,” which bounced qualified 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 Johnson or Jose Hernandez appears on voter rolls in both Virginia and Michigan, the voter’s name would be purged from the rolls in both states, and only reinstated with great difficulty.
Palast’s investigation found that 41,637 voters were purged from the rolls in Virginia on this basis. According to his statistical analysis, a total of 1.1 million voters, overwhelmingly voters of color and the poor, were purged from the rolls nationally. It was enough to move the tally of Electoral College votes from key swing states from Clinton towards Trump and possibly determine the election.
Holding Kris Accountable
Back in Newton, 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 Trump’s country club in Bedminster, New Jersey, offering the president-elect 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, and Kobach stands next to President Trump and Vice President Pence in the Rose Garden. Trump announces that Kobach will lead a new “Voter Integrity Commission” to root out allegedly widespread voter fraud and double voting, which most experts agree are next to nonexistent in this country.
In mid-July, the Commission held its first “public” meeting, yet barred the public from attending in person. Trump opened the meeting with remarks focused on alleged double voting and voting by illegal immigrants and proclaiming this must be stopped.
Crosscheck on Steroids
Kobach’s Voter Commission is Crosscheck on steroids, now fueled by the power of the Presidency. It is likely to be used to justify further voter suppression in upcoming elections.
If Trump and Republicans used voter suppression to steal the 2016 election, there’s reason to be even more worried about its effect on elections in 2018 and 2020.
So it may turn out that Americans, more than Russians, are the biggest threat to our democracy. Is it time for a new Voting Rights movement, before voter suppression takes root nationwide?