Thursday, October 30, 2014

SMITH: Kobach’s voter fraud claims exaggerated

By MICHAEL A. SMITH, Insight Kansas | 10/25/2013

Few neighborhoods have a more storied, rough-and-tumble political history than Kansas City’s Old Northeast or “North End.”

One of the Missouri city’s oldest areas, the community of beautiful, historic homes remains a landing pad for immigrants: once from Italy, now from Mexico, Vietnam and Somalia. It was the home of early Kansas City’s Rabbits and Goats factions, who battled like the toughs in Martin Scorcese’s film, “Gangs of New York.” It was the center of local mafia operations until the 1980s.

Few neighborhoods have a more storied, rough-and-tumble political history than Kansas City’s Old Northeast or “North End.”

One of the Missouri city’s oldest areas, the community of beautiful, historic homes remains a landing pad for immigrants: once from Italy, now from Mexico, Vietnam and Somalia. It was the home of early Kansas City’s Rabbits and Goats factions, who battled like the toughs in Martin Scorcese’s film, “Gangs of New York.” It was the center of local mafia operations until the 1980s.

The community also formed the political base of “Boss Tom” Pendergast, who made Kansas City a speakeasy jazz town during Prohibition. Pendergast was a master of voter fraud, culling votes for his candidates from day workers who lived outside the city, ballots filled out for people who didn’t actually vote, and so on. Boss Tom rose to control the state of Missouri and even parts of Kansas from his small KC office. He also launched Harry Truman on a trajectory that ended in the White House.  

Those were wide-open days, when little was done to stop voter fraud. Today, enforcement of existing laws make these tactics obsolete, even in states like Missouri which, unlike Kansas, have no photo ID or birth certificate requirements.

Old Northeast is back on the political stage, closely watched by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. True to its history, the area recently witnessed an election-fraud flap. J.J. Rizzo, scion of a local, political family, defeated Will Royster by one vote in the Democratic primary for Missouri state representative. An angry Royster alleged voter fraud. Recently, the Kansas City Election Board found that Rizzo’s aunt and uncle illegally changed their address from suburban KC to an apartment in Rizzo’s would-be district just a few days before the election, then cast the votes establishing Rizzo’s tiny margin of victory. The aunt and uncle pleaded guilty, losing their voting privileges for life. Reporters covering the story found that the election was sloppily conducted: there was electioneering in the polling place and some ballots lacked judges’ initials. These problems were violations of existing election laws. They could be solved with better enforcement of those laws. Critics allege misdeeds by the local Somali community, but the election board could not substantiate these charges.

Kobach loves to tell this story, often forgetting to mention that it didn’t occur in Kansas, that it comes down to two votes cast by a candidate’s aunt and uncle, and that the perpetrators were caught and prosecuted in a state with no photo ID or birth certificate requirement. Imagery of illegal immigrant hordes casting ballots serves as a powerful underpinning for Kobach’s relentless drive to restrict voting laws. These laws currently leave more than 17,000 Kansans in a strange limbo, unable to clearly affirm or be denied their voting rights, all because of their not providing birth certificates when obtaining drivers’ licenses.

Once, rules were bent to record illegal votes. That still happens today. Though rare, it does make a case for better enforcement of existing election laws. However, instead of simply using that tactic, Kobach pushes for new laws denying legal voters their hard-fought right to cast a ballot, using unnecessary hurdles and severe requirements for proof of citizenship. Times, neighborhoods and politicians all change, but the cutthroat will of some politicos to win by any means necessary is alive and well.

Michael A. Smith is an associate professor in the political science department at Emporia State University and a member of the “Insight Kansas” writing group.

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