Commentary: If Kobach wins in Kansas, brace for the trainwreck

Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT)
Barbara Shelly is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. (Kansas City Star/MCT) MCT

Kansas secretary of state candidate Chris Biggs sounded casual this week when he thanked an audience for attending a debate at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City.

“I was here in 2002,” he said, “when I debated Phill Kline.”

The reference wasn’t really so off-hand. Biggs has much to gain by reminding Kansans that eight years ago he was the last man standing in front of a runaway train commandeered by a politician intent on using a state office to carry out an ideological agenda.

Biggs, a little-known Democratic prosecutor from Geary County, lost that election by a margin of 0.523 percent. Kline, a state legislator determined to prosecute abortion providers, became the Kansas attorney general. The train wreck wasn’t long in coming, and it reverberates to this day.

Now Biggs, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in the secretary of state’s office in March, is campaigning for a four-year term. His opponent, Kris Kobach, has made a name for himself as the go-to lawyer for states and local governments wanting to crack down on illegal immigrants. He wants to continue his crusade from the Kansas secretary of state’s office.

That much was clear from his opening statement. Kobach came out firing but not at Biggs. His target was President Obama’s Justice Department, which Kobach thinks has dropped the ball on prosecuting election fraud.

He wants to turn the Kansas secretary of state’s office into a one-stop shopping depot for receiving, investigating and prosecuting allegations of illegal voting.

Listen to Kobach and you get the idea that election fraud is rampant, especially as perpetrated by noncitizens.

“I myself was the victim of voter fraud,” Kobach confided to the audience Tuesday.

It seems that in 2004, when Kobach unsuccessfully challenged Democrat Dennis Moore for a seat in the U.S. Congress, some Wyandotte County residents received absentee ballots they hadn’t requested, possibly indicating a problem with forged signatures.

As Biggs pointed out, mailing an unauthorized ballot to someone isn’t quite the same thing as fraudulently casting a vote. But no matter. Victimhood sells well on the campaign trail.

Biggs isn’t buying it, though. He says Kansas sees only one or two verifiable cases of voter fraud a year, and almost none involve illegal immigrants.

Biggs has logic on his side. Most undocumented people are here to work and support their families. Many are so afraid of detection they opt not to report crimes against them or seek medical help for their sick children. Why would they risk everything by casting a ballot?

It’s true, as Kobach noted, that “one case of voter fraud is a problem in Kansas.”

But it’s also true, as Biggs contended, that allegations of voter fraud should be dealt with by sheriff’s departments and local prosecutors, with backup from the state attorney general. The secretary of state’s office is supposed to encourage citizens to legitimately participate in elections, not bare its teeth at them.

If elected, he’ll keep up his high-profile law practice, Kobach said.

“Some people golf in their spare time. Some people, as Mr. Biggs does, play the banjo. I will continue to uphold the rule of law.”

That sounds noble enough. But Kobach isn’t quite the multitasker that he makes himself out to be.

For a while, along with teaching constitutional law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and carrying out his lucrative law practice, Kobach was chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. Under his watch, finances and office management fell into disarray.

Biggs, who indeed is a banjo picker of some repute, articulated the larger problem.

“I have an issue with our secretary of state traveling around the country being involved in very volatile issues and Kansas being known for that,” he said.

Exactly. Been there, done that. Shades of Phill Kline.

Once again, Chris Biggs and Kansas voters are standing in front of a runaway engine. If this train runs them over, one needn’t look far down the track to see the impending wreck.

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