We’re about two years away from the 2014 general election, but Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach already has an opponent. Asserting that Kobach is “out of control,” Democrat Randy Rolston, a Lenexa businessman, immediately put $200,000 of his own money into his nascent campaign. Rolston said he would put a lot more of his money into the race and, with the help of donors, could foresee spending more than $1 million. If Kobach matches that sort of fundraising — and if outside groups decide they’ll plunk hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting one of the candidates — it not only could be the most expensive secretary of state race in Kansas history, but in U.S. history.
During his tenure, Kobach has talked about preserving the integrity of elections in Kansas. As such, he has helped pass legislation putting in place voter ID laws and a new law requiring proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Most recently, he has asked the Legislature to give his office the power to prosecute voter fraud cases. No doubt these issues will be talked about during the next 20 months of the secretary of state campaign. However, if we are concerned about the integrity of Kansas elections, there is one big question that needs to be asked — and addressed — that in the end matters much more than voter registration rules: Should Kansas allow a partisan political figure to be in charge of its elections in the first place?
On the face of it, it is absurd to have a partisan party member running elections, as it presents an inherent conflict of interest. Kobach, for example, is the former chair of the Republican Party, and in 2012, while secretary of state, operated a political action committee that donated money to specific candidates running for office. In short, imagine the head referee of the next KU-North Carolina game being the former Tar Heel coach and having thousands of dollars bet on the North Carolina players to do well. Nobody would stand for it in basketball, and we should not put up with it in our elections.
So what are the other options? One option would be to take away the election duties of the Secretary of State’s Office. The secretary of state would be in charge of filing, recording, and certification of all official and business documents in the state. The business of elections could then be run by a state board. This is how it is done in several states, including Oklahoma, New York and Wisconsin. Does this mitigate partisanship? Well, it certainly can, depending on the model. In Oklahoma, the largest political party gets two members of the three-member board; in New York, the board is truly bipartisan, as both major parties get two members of the four-member board; Wisconsin is very interesting. There, in 2008, the state Legislature (in what was dubbed a “rare moment of enlightenment”) formed an election board in which the governor chooses former judges from a list selected by current state appeals court judges, who then must be confirmed by the state senate. In Wisconsin, judges cannot be affiliated with a political party, and to serve on the election board a judge must have served six years to be eligible. So, 12 years removed from partisan politics.
The simplest solution might be the best: Keep an elected secretary of state, but ban him or her from involvement with partisan political activities (no campaign donations, no attending state or national political conventions, etc.). Better yet, make the secretary of state unaffiliated with a party. Since 30 percent of all Kansans are registered unaffiliated, I doubt we would lack for qualified candidates, and the referee would not be cheering for a winner during the game.
Dr. Bob Beatty is a professor of political science at Washburn University, a political analyst for Kansas First News in Topeka and a contributor to the Insight Kansas writing group.