Kris Kobach, the Donald Trump stalwart appointed to head a national panel on voter fraud, launched a crusade two years ago to search for what he alleged were thousands of non-citizens voting illegally in Kansas.
But instead of finding “foreigners” sent to vote by Democratic candidates – a myth believed by the far-right – the Kansas secretary of state moved against only nine voters, most of them elderly Republicans who owned homes in two states and were confused by the convoluted voting system.
"He is a dangerous guy who changed the lives of nine of us,” says Lincoln Wilson, who was convicted but maintains his innocence.
Wilson, 66, an owner of homes in Kansas and neighboring Colorado, argues that he could legally vote in local elections in both states because Colorado is one of the states that allow non-permanent residents to vote.
After more than a year fighting the voter fraud charges and racking up large attorney fees, he pleaded guilty to three voting misdemeanors and paid a $6,000 fine.
Kobach is now vice-president of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, created by President Donald Trump in May. Nearly all states have reportedly refused to hand over the personal information of voters requested by the panel, arguing that they are required by law to protect the privacy of voters and even questioning Kobach's motives.
Kobach persuaded the Republican-controlled Kansas legislature in 2015 to grant him extraordinary powers to go after cases of electoral fraud, making him the only secretary of state in the country with that kind of power.
But Kobach has not been deterred by the failure of his investigations in Kansas. He declared in November that Trump was “absolutely right” when he claimed that he would have won the popular vote if not for millions of illegal votes cast for Hillary Clinton.
Kobach announced on June 8 that he would run for the Kansas governor's seat in 2018. He has insisted that non-citizen voters have been the key target of his investigations since the legislature gave him special powers in 2015, despite any evidence toward that end, including in this April 2016 interview with the Washington Post. Kobach also told the Kansas state legislature in February that he estimates 18,000 non-citizens are illegally registered to vote in state elections.
But he has only filed charges against one, Peruvian-born Victor Garcia-Bebek, detected by Kobach's staff when he became a U.S. citizen in February. Urged to register to vote at the citizenship ceremony, Garcia-Bebek filled in the required form, and was found to have first registered in 2011.
García-Bebek had voted illegally in a special election in 2012 and the general elections in 2012 and 2014. He was sentenced in April to three years probation and a $5,000 fine.
His critics say they are not surprised that Kobach has yet to admit he was wrong, and they view his campaign against voter fraud in Kansas as a platform for his political career, appealing to voters' anti-immigrant prejudices. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, has described Kobach, author of Arizona's controversial SB1070 law, as “the lawyer for the U.S. nativist movement."
Among the Kansas voters caught in Kobach's dragnet were Steven and Betty Gaedtke, a pair of retirees whose lawyer said made an unintentional mistake when they moved to their dream retirement cabin in neighboring Arkansas in the final weeks of the 2010 electoral season.
Gaedtke, a Vietnam veteran, and his wife, a former U.S. Postal Service employee, had been building the cabin in the Ozark mountains of Arkansas for a long time, moving back and forth between Kansas and Arkansas, attorney Trey PettLon told Univision Noticias.
Gaedtke requested mail-in ballots for him and his wife in Kansas, then they both also voted in Arkansas, the attorney said. “Voting laws are very confusing, and there are people who find themselves in transition and believe erroneously that they have a right to vote, when that's not the case,” said the lawyer.
Because the elections were for state office, the Gaedtkes saw different candidates and did not understand the violation, their lawyer said. Steven Gaedtke was convicted of a misdemeanor and paid a $500 fine. His wife was found not guilty.
A conviction would have meant expulsion from her Native American tribe, the Quapaws.
The Kobach accusations against the Gaedtkes, who had no prior criminal records, caused them “a lot of stress and anxiety,” PettLon added.
Other voters accused by Kobach included:
- Ron Weems, 77, registered to vote in Kansas and Colorado and voted in both states in the 2012 and 2014 general elections. He paid a $5,500 fine. His attorney, Jim McIntyre, told the Wichita Eagle that even though the violation was “inadvertent” that Weems had pleaded guilty to close the case because of his advanced age.
- Randall Killian, 63, pleaded guilty to voting in Kansas and Colorado in 2012 and paid a $2,500 fine. He lived in Kansas for 25 years and moved to Colorado, where he received a mail-in ballot for a referendum on legalizing marijuana. “When I saw that on the ballot I told myself, Oh wow. That's something that I'll never again have the chance to vote on. So, BAM! I voted,” he told KCUR.
- Michael L. Hannum, 64, paid a $5,500 fine for three misdemeanors after voting in 2012 in Kansas and Nebraska, where he traveled frequently to visit relatives after the death of his father in 2011.
Politico has reported that at least seven of the nine people convicted as part of Kobach's campaign were Republicans and older than 60.
The Kansas City Star has branded Kobach's campaign against illegal voting a “fraud” and compared the secretary of state to Inspector Javert, the unrelenting and unforgiving law enforcer in Victor Hugo's novel Les Miserables.
University of Pennsylvania professor Marc Meredith, who has studied the issue of double voting, said that convictions for those kinds of violations are exceptionally rare. “In the great majority of cases they are people who did not know they were violating the law,” said Meredith.
Some prosecutors even declined to file charges on cases turned up by Kobach, saying there was no intent to violate electoral laws. Betty and Steven Gaedtke, in fact, had been interviewed by a prosecutor by phone, and were surprised when Kobach moved against them just one month before the statute of limitations expired.
“These trials are a farce,” Kansas Democratic state legislator John Carmichael told Univision Noticias in a telephone interview. “Kobach needed to show results to justify the powers that he was granted.” Kobach did not respond to a Univision Noticias request for comment.
Cases of double voting are extremely uncommon in the United States, according to experts. Even more rare are the two other main forms of voter fraud: identity theft, such as voting in the name of a dead person, and unqualified voters, such as non-citizens.
If Kobach's investigations have proved anything it is precisely just how few cases of electoral fraud there have been, experts said. “Kobach has investigated this issue with perhaps more aggressiveness and depth than anyone, and has found less than a dozen cases,” said Meredith.
Many of the states refusing to cooperate with the new presidential panel, led by Vice President Mike Pence, are citing the need to protect the privacy of their voters. Some said they were insulted by the request for information. “Go jump in the Gulf of Mexico,” said Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann.
Kobach has said that recent reports about the massive opposition to his panel are “fake news.” In a statement published on the White House website, he said only 14 states have refused to hand over information on their voters. A report by the McClatchy news bureau in Washington last week showed that 16 states are refusing to cooperate. Another 29, including Kansas, have said they will cooperate but “plan to withhold some of the information requested, especially social security numbers and criminal information.”
Some critics have warned that the presidential panel appears to be an excuse for an effort to tighten voting laws, which would disproportionately affect minorities. They said that Kobach's very appointment to the panel is worrisome. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said Kobach's history of anti-immigrant policies and suppression of minority voters is proof that "the ultimate goal of the commission is to enact policies that will result in the disenfranchisement of American citizens."
Kobach has been writing laws against voters and immigrants for years. He was the author of Kansas' 2011 SAFE law, which requires people registering to vote to produce a birth certificate, a passport or other proof of citizenship. The law has been challenged in a wave of lawsuits filed by civil rights groups.
Kobach has also been linked to several hate groups throughout his career and writes columns for the anti-immigrant website Breitbart. “Putting an extremist like Mr. Kobach at the helm of this commission is akin to putting an arsonist in charge of the fire department,” Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY., said.
In Kansas, residents familiar with his aggressive rhetoric against undocumented migrants said they are worried that Kobach will now take his personal campaign to the national stage. “In my opinion, Kobach has a fixation on going after people who are immigrants, especially Hispanics,” said Carmichael. “He is terrible. He is fostering prejudice based on inventions.”
It remains to be seen whether Kobach will continue to go after Kansas residents, whose votes he would need for the gubernatorial election in 2018. Some of the people he prosecuted now see an opportunity to get back at him. “I'm not done yet,” said Wilson.