How Kansas Secretary Of State Kris Kobach Might Act In A Trump Administration

Dec 2, 2016

After certifying the Kansas election results, Secretary of State Kris Kobach told reporters in Topeka this week he agrees with President-elect Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claim that ballots cast by non-citizens cost him the popular vote.

It comes as no surprise. Trump's assertion sounds like something that could have come from the secretary himself. 

Kobach has been an advisor to Trump on immigration and other issues. And the two were recently photographed together during the parade of potential appointees through Trump's golf club in Bedminster, NJ,  The highly-publicized photo-op has brought speculation about what Kobach might whisper in the president's ear if he is picked for a post in the Trump administration. 

Caught by the zoom lens of photojournalists: Kobach's homeland security plan for the first 365 days. 

The flashing of Kobach's to-do list immediately made national news. Late-night TV hosts like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon joked that Kobach's national security bullet points were not very well secured.

Here’s what everyone saw on the paper clipped to the outside of the porfolio tucked under Kobach's arm:

NSEERS is a  registry of  non-citizens from mainly Muslim countries, both those coming in the U.S. and those already here.  Kobach helped design NSEERS while an advisor to then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft as part of the post-9/11 anti-terrorism efforts.  Critics have said it led to racial profiling and the program was suspended in 2011.

Kobach's to-do list hasn't changed much in the last decade.

I reached out many times to him for this story but got no response.

Kobach, 50, is the son of a Topeka car salesman. He has degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale. Now in his second term as Secretary of State, Kobach has transformed the administrative job of supervising elections, registering businesses and watching over cemeteries into a lightning rod for debate over immigration and voting rules.

Kobach wrote some of the most controversial laws in the country, including Arizona’s hotly debated SB1070. At a packed rally when Kobach was first campaigning for Secretary of State in 2010, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio touted how he was arresting and detaining immigrants under the law.

"I took away their cigarettes. I took away their coffee, put them on a chain gang. I’m an equal opportunity incarcerator, I put the women on a chain gang," Arpaio roared to an ecstatic crowd with Kobach smiling right behind him.

Kobach has long had support from immigration hard-liners, like Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona.
Credit Laura Ziegler KCUR 89-3

Kobach was among the first in the country to require proof of citizenship for voter registration, and the first Secretary of State to get the power to prosecute voter fraud.

All driven by his long-lasting mission to address illegal immigration. 

"I want Kansas to be to stopping voter fraud what Arizona is to stopping illegal immigration, the state that is out front," Kobach said in a speech to the Topeka Pachyderm Club in 2011. 

In a string of lawsuits reflecting his expansive view of state’s powers, Kobach has, so far, unsuccessfully argued that Kansas can make its own voter registration laws. Courts have ruled that the federal Voter Registration Act takes precedence.

University of Missouri Kansas City law professor Doug Linder warns Kobach's efforts have been effective in other ways, nonetheless. 

"He’s attracted attention to this by Republicans across the country as a potential tool for depressing the vote," Linder says.

Linder goes on to suggest a states-rights philosophy like Kobach's could be extended to environmental law, firearms rules and other areas.

Over the years, Kobach’s detractors have said he spends too much time writing and litigating laws outside of Kansas.

But Kelly Arnold, a long time friend and Chair of the Kansas Republican Party, is rooting for him. 

"We all have our own hobbies and activities. I like to go to K-State football games. He’s out there trying to provide a service to other governments and cities and states," Arnold says.

Leonard Zeskind of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights says that passion has led Kobach to ally himself with groups that promote racism and hate.

Kobach has worked, for example, at the Federation for American Immigration Reform founded by a man who’s espoused white nationalist rhetoric. He’s shared a stage with Holocaust deniers and nativists.

Zeskind suggests Kobach wants to go back to a time before the protections of civil rights law. 

"In whatever position he is nominated to he is sure to enact the most regressive policies that agency has ever had." Zeskind says.

Kobach is a polarizing politician.

His boy-next-door affability and debate skills have won him many admirers. Others see him as an ambitious opportunist, a critique that rolls off his back.

It’s likely a combination of the two that may land him high up in the Trump administration.

Laura Ziegler is a community engagement reporter and producer. You can reach her on twitter @laurazig or at lauraz@kcur.org.