TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kris Kobach, the author of contentious policies on immigration and voter identification, enters his new role as a leader of President Donald Trump's commission on election fraud by touting evidence of illegal voting he says he uncovered as Kansas' secretary of state.
Kobach, the nation's only state elections chief with prosecutorial powers, said he's not pre-judging what might be happening elsewhere before the commission begins compiling hard data about election fraud. But he has described the situation in Kansas as a significant problem, citing dozens of non-citizens on voter rolls and nine successful prosecutions.
The conservative Republican and former law professor is the architect of tough Kansas laws requiring voters to show ID at the polls and proof of citizenship to register, along with policies in Arizona and elsewhere cracking down on illegal immigration.
He has been advising Trump for months and said he talks to the White House each week. Kobach will serve as the commission's vice chairman, with Vice President Mike Pence as chairman.
His appointment last week received immediate and vocal criticism. The American Civil Liberties Union filed Freedom of Information requests Thursday with Kobach's office and its counterparts in Indiana, Maine and New Hampshire, whose elections chiefs will serve on the commission. The group is seeking documents that might show the officials already have been working on policy proposals.
During an interview with The Associated Press, Kobach said he has no "preconceived conclusions" about whether the commission even will make policy recommendations. He said it will also examine allegations about election laws suppressing turnout — as critics charge Kansas' laws do.
"There are all kinds of assumptions you might come to this issue with, but I'd like to test those assumptions and see if the facts bear them out," said Kobach, who will remain in his Kansas job while serving on the panel.
But Dale Ho, director of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, which has battled Kobach in federal court over a 2013 state law requiring new voters to provide proof of their U.S. citizenship when registering, said the group believes the commission's work has a "pre-ordained" outcome.
A federal judge recently ordered Kobach to turn over to the ACLU a document he took into a meeting with Trump in November in New Jersey. An AP photograph showed it was a paper outlining homeland security issues, including potential changes in federal voting laws.
"He already has policy recommendations. They're the Kansas experiment," Ho said of Kobach. "It seems like this commission is just a fig leaf of a process."
Amid the court battles with the ACLU, Kobach reported that 125 non-citizens were registered to vote in Kansas, out of a total registration of about 1.8 million.
Kobach received the power to pursue election fraud cases in July 2015. Of nine successful prosecutions since, eight have been for illegal voting in multiple states at once. The remaining case involved a non-citizen who voted.
Kobach said incidents of non-citizens voting are hard to pursue because crucial information about someone's citizenship status often doesn't come to light for years.
"This whole issue is fraught with vague adjectives," Kobach said. "People say, 'Well someone said it's not widespread.' And my answer is, 'Well, it depends on what you mean by widespread.'"
He added, "So, let's just use the numbers."
But Democratic state Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita lawyer who's sparred with Kobach, said he "has a long history of in Kansas of overstating the extent of voter fraud."
The 51-year-old Kobach has been provoking outrage on the left for nearly two decades. As an aide to former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, he developed a program after the 9/11 terror attacks requiring immigrants from mostly Muslim nations already in the U.S. to re-register with the federal government. He was elected Kansas secretary of state in 2010.
He holds degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford. He has been a fan of the band U2 since the 1980s; its song, "Sunday Bloody Sunday," he said, is "always there" in his head.
He's an avid hunter and passing his love for it onto his five daughters, with a family tradition that each kills her first deer at age 7. His third daughter, Molly, started this past winter, and he eagerly showed off a cellphone photo from her hunt, saying, "It's cute as can be."
Kobach was the only prominent Kansas elected official to endorse Trump before the state's March 2016 presidential caucuses. He said he and Donald Trump Jr. have a mutual friend and that he met the future president through his oldest son.
Regular calls and meetings followed. He said he now has regular contact with Trump's inner circle, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and, less often, chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Kobach said he was offered jobs as an undersecretary of homeland security and in the White House, helping to coordinate immigration enforcement. He said he turned them down because he and his family wanted to stay in Kansas; he is taking a serious look at the 2018 governor's race.
He expects the presidential commission to have its first meeting in July and produce its report in a year. Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft, son of Kobach's mentor, said he was encouraged by the Kansan's appointment to the presidential commission, calling him "very well respected."
"He will take a very rigorous look at the facts," Ashcroft said.
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