The Republican-controlled Kansas state Senate passed legislation Thursday evening that would give Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R) power to investigate and prosecute election fraud cases. The legislation will also prohibit Kobach from having his own political action committee to campaign for political allies in the state.
Kobach, the state's chief election officer, has long sought prosecutorial power as part of his effort to end what he believes is a serious problem of voter fraud in the state. He has also been active with his political action committee, offering support to choice politicians and in one case defeating a vocal legislative critic.
Kobach told the Associated Press that he is pleased that the senators support his quest to prosecute election fraud, something he thinks local prosecutors have not gone after aggressively enough. Kobach added that he believes the PAC ban violates his freedom of speech. Kobach has argued that his PAC is separate from his governmental role. He does not count ballots, he has noted, but rather leaves that function to county officials -- many of whom are appointed by Kobach.
The Associated Press reported that a similar PAC ban for Kobach failed in the House earlier this week, setting the stage for potential confrontation between the two chambers as the second half of the annual legislative session gears up.
Democrats are cheering the decision of the Senate, dominated by conservative Republicans, to pass the PAC ban. But they said they are not happy with the idea that Kobach could become a prosecutor.
"For the Kansas Democratic Party, the secretary of state should be an unbiased arbitrator of elections and should not be involved with elections other than his own election," state Democratic Party spokesman Dakota Loomis told The Huffington Post. "The perception is toxic for the democratic process and the secretary of state's office."
Kobach's non-governmental activities have long been criticized by Democrats, including his work on immigration issues. The secretary of state has helped draft controversial immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama. Kobach's PAC has also been criticized, including for providing funding for the campaign against Democrat Ann Mah in her unsuccessful effort to retain her state House seat last year. Mah had been Kobach's leading critic in the Legislature.
Kobach is not the first secretary of state in the nation to campaign for candidates outside of the role of chief elections officer. Former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (R) co-chaired President George W. Bush's 2000 campaign in the state, while New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno (R), who doubles as secretary of state, is well known for frequently appearing at county GOP events statewide.
Loomis described Kobach's prosecutorial ambitions as an attempt to benefit himself.
"It is a power grab by Kris Kobach as part of his single-minded agenda to root out nonexistent voter fraud in Kansas," Loomis said.
State Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), told HuffPost that he is opposed to restricting the secretary's right to a PAC. Claeys said he believes Kobach is fair in his administration of elections, and said the PAC is a First Amendment right that should not be restricted due to Kobach's office.
"I think it's kind of silly to be restrictive like that," Claeys told HuffPost. "He has the same free speech rights as everybody else."
However, Claeys said he does not think Kobach should be a prosecutor.
"We have an attorney general, and that's the duty of the attorney general," Claeys said.