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obach not only disrespected his fellow state election administrators, but also failed to acknowledge how this was an atypical request by the federal government: States run their own elections.

"Kobach not only disrespected his fellow state election administrators, but also failed to acknowledge how this was an atypical request by the federal government: States run their own elections." (Photo by Michael Fleshman/flickr CC 2.0/edited from original)

Calling Out the Kobach Commission for What It Is

An activist calls on Americans who care about voting rights to urge their state election administrators to refuse to cooperate with the Pence-Kobach Commission.

Emma Olson Sharkey


In the coverage that followed the recent meeting of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Voter Integrity, the media focused on the testimony of John Lott Jr., a gun researcher who argued that the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco’s background check system should be used to check voter eligibility. And while Lott’s testimony was worthy of the coverage — if not just for its ridiculousness, but also for its inaccuracy — this focus diverted attention from Kris Kobach’s continued underlying goal: to use this commission as an tool to restrict voting across the entire country.

From the very start of this commission, Kris Kobach — Kansas’ Republican Secretary of State and vice chair of the commission — has made voter restriction his main objective. On June 28, as one of the panel’s very first actions, Kobach sent letters to the secretaries of state in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, asking them to compile and send extensive data on their voters. He requested not just names and addresses, but also other deeply personal information, such as dates of birth, Social Security numbers, political party affiliation and every election voted dating back to 2006. While Kobach has not made his intended use for the data fully clear, it is likely that he will use this data to try to implement a national voter roll purge system, similar to his Kansas-run Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, a program known for removing hundreds of correctly registered voters from the rolls.

But in making this request, Kobach got something he didn’t expect: pushback from Republican election administrators. In fact, one of the most conservative state election administrators, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, told Kobach to “go jump in the Gulf of Mexico.” By attempting to secure this data from states, Kobach unintentionally walked into a hornet’s nest.

By flippantly requesting data from state administrators, and in some cases the wrong state administrators, Kobach signaled not only his ineptitude, but his lack of political historical knowledge. In his failure to make these requests in a thoughtful way, Kobach not only disrespected his fellow state election administrators, but also failed to acknowledge how this was an atypical request by the federal government: States run their own elections. In fact, any intervention into state elections typically come only after years of litigation, as in the Texas photo-ID litigation that started in 2011 and is still being litigated, or longtime movements, as with the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Initially, 21 states plus DC refused to comply with Kobach’s request, and others only agreed to provide already-public data. Even Kobach’s own state, Kansas, was unable to comply fully with the data request, limited by Kansas state law. Further, a federal judge ruled that the commission did not have the legal authority to compel states to provide voter data. Now, after that federal ruling, eight states are still refusing to comply with the data request at all, 11 states are complying only after certain conditions are met, and 17 states will only provide already-public data (15 states have not yet made a public decision).

With this initial setback, Kobach pushed forward during last week’s meeting and began building a more methodical case for further federal voting restrictions — like more restrictive photo-ID requirements, background checks and strict enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) voter maintenance — with the help of 12 white, male witnesses. In addition to Lott’s polarizing testimony, Don Palmer argued that “the failure to maintain accurate official voter lists is a national problem”; Robert Popper argued that the “voter list maintenance goals of the NVRA are not being met” and Hans von Spakovsky pointed to cases of “voter fraud” across the country. Kobach even cited his own Breitbart article to indicate a need for federal oversight. In sum, Kobach brought like-minded, longtime voter suppressionists (in some cases discredited) — who have perpetrated the voter fraud myth and taken steps to force states to purge their rolls — to try to show the need for federal voting restrictions.

This commission and Kobach in particular are working to fabricate justifications for voter restriction. Its deceit is so bald that state election administrators — and even members of his own panel — are beginning to push back. The Maine secretary of state has already started to question witness findings and the New Hampshire secretary of state said that Kobach’s article “caused a ‘problem’ by questioning whether last year’s election was ‘real and valid.’” But this pushback is not enough, and these two commission members have not yet resigned or taken any further action. More people need to get involved to help stop this commission and their attempts to restrict voting.

As the commission continues to meet, voting activists must continue to learn more and speak out to urge their state election administrators to refuse to cooperate with it. And, when Kobach inevitably demands national voting restrictions — through national voter-roll purges, photo-ID laws and whatever else — let’s hope more secretaries of state tell him to go jump in the Gulf.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License.
Emma Olson Sharkey

Emma Olson Sharkey

Emma Olson Sharkey is a voting rights attorney and The Franchise Project co-founder. As a longtime voting rights advocate, she has worked on voter protection efforts across the country. Emma earned a J.D. from the Northwestern University School of Law and a B.S. from the University of Minnesota. She currently resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter: @emmarolson.

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