WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas county elections official used close ties to one of the nation's leading advocates of voting restrictions to help secure the top job at a government agency entrusted with making voting more accessible, and then used the federal position to implement an obstacle to voter registration in three states.
An email provided to The Associated Press through open records requests offers a glimpse into the mindset of Brian Newby, executive director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, who decided — without public comment or approval from bosses — that residents of Alabama, Kansas and Georgia can no longer register to vote using a national form without providing proof of U.S. citizenship.
As a finalist for the job of executive director, Newby said in a June email to his benefactor, Kansas' Republican Secretary of State Kris Kobach, that he was friends with two of the commissioners at the federal agency, and told Kobach: "I think I would enter the job empowered to lead the way I want to."
Voting rights advocates were stunned by Newby's action once he got the job and have sued to overturn it. Activists say it flies in the face of the commission's mission to provide a simple, easy form to encourage voter registration.
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that states must accept and use the federal voter registration form, and an appeals court ruled in 2014 in a lawsuit filed by Kobach that states could not force the commission to require residents to provide proof-of-citizenship documents on the national form.
The little-known commission was created in 2002 to help prevent a repeat of the disputed 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore following voting chaos in the crucial state of Florida. Among the commission's duties is oversight of the national voter registration form. The federal body is supposed to have two Republican and two Democratic commissioners but has only one Democrat now because of a vacancy.
Documents obtained by AP show Newby's ties to Kobach, the architect of voter ID and other restrictive voter registration laws around the nation that he says are needed to prevent voter fraud. Critics say there is very little voter fraud and Kobach's measures hurt voter registration and deprive eligible voters of the right to vote.
Kobach had appointed Newby to be a county elections commissioner in Kansas, and helped him get the federal job that he took in November.
"I wanted you in the loop, in part because of other issues in the past with the EAC," Newby emailed Kobach. "I also don't want you thinking that you can't count on me in an upcoming period that will tax our resources."
Newby declined to comment for this story about the email, referring questions to a commission spokesman, Bryan Whitener, who declined comment. Newby was hired by the three sitting commissioners.
Kobach said Wednesday that he spoke to one, and possibly two of the Republican commissioners, about Newby prior to his hiring.
"I told that person I thought Newby would be excellent and he was one of Kansas' most talented county election officers and indeed one of the most talented election officers in country," Kobach said.
But documents from open records requests and interviews by AP show that as early as April 2015 and continuing in the months leading to Newby's hiring by the commission, Kobach and his staff met with county officials to discuss concerns about Newby's job performance in Kansas. Those concerns led officials to call for an audit of the Johnson County election office Newby led.
Kobach told AP he never informed the federal commissioners about those problems, and insisted they would not have affected Newby's performance at his federal job.
The audit released earlier this month found Newby intentionally skirted oversight of government credit card expenses, wasted taxpayer funds and improperly claimed mileage and travel expenses while at his former job in Kansas. Newby has called the audit inaccurate and misleading.
Among the questionable expenditures was more than $18,000 that county taxpayers spent for a conference in Kansas City. Documents obtained through open records requests show it was organized by Newby and all three federal commissioners spoke at that conference, which was in September while Newby was under consideration for the job.
Newby told Kobach that he never would have been considered for such a high-profile position if it weren't for Kobach's support, adding that he would be saying "repeated prayers of thanksgiving for that."