For six decades, the Secretary of State’s office was Kansas’ chief steward of government order and commercial province. It was a modest, efficient agency, crucial for government and for business. It tended many topics and functions, from the smallest cemetery district and the poorest township to the teeming corridors of urban courthouses and buzzing hives of swank offices.
The secretary is a constitutional office, but the docu- ment rarely specifies the powers of the office and duties of the agency. Over the years hundreds of laws have been written to define its direction, to change with the times and technology – until the legislature gave Kris Kobach, the current secretary, his power to prosecute. Things then changed almost overnight. For voters, election offices and polling places, Kobach became like an old southern sheriff with a new rope.
In the decades preceding Kobach, the Secretary’s office managed a cooperative relationship with local agencies and the private sector. It kept all the gears working, in motion. The secretary and staff supervised elections, kept book on corporations doing business in Kansas, and ran the Uniform Commercial Code govern- ing secured transactions. The office issued commissions, filed bonds, registered trademarks, kept labor union reports and licenses, managed records for drainage and soil conservation districts, compiled state acts and laws, registered lobbyists and maintained land survey records. Among other things.
It was a magnificent place for a long time – since the early 1950s when Secretary of State Paul Shanahan (1951-’66) clarified a mission: efficiency and collaboration among government entities in Kansas. When Shanahan died, his widow, Elwill, no stranger to her late husband’s work, continued; voters elected and reelected her until she retired in 1978.
In effect, the Shanahans had become the state’s headmasters – firm, caring, acutely wise to public needs and perceptions. This legacy continued, with remarkable advancements, through three secretary-successors: Jack Brier (1978-’87); Bill Graves (1987-’95) and Ron Thornburgh (1995-2010).
Located in large and open spaces on the second floor of the Statehouse, the office once was the least-complicated, most-accessible agency in government. People in the office answered the phone – themselves. Citizens with questions went there, on foot, by phone, or through the mail, and got answers.
People who wanted to see the boss – a Shanahan, Brier, Graves or Thornburgh – could simply walk in. There she or he was, at a desk, unobstructed by assistant bureaucrats, secretaries, the required appointment.
Mrs. Shanahan’s successors continued the mission. Brier, Graves (who would become a two-term governor, starting in 1995) and Thornburgh continued to travel and to telephone, to keep local officials informed and aware.
Brier, Graves, and Thornburgh, as the state’s chief election officers, were early and passionate advocates of increased voter registration long before the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Known as the “motor voter” law, the act made it easier for Americans to register when they obtain or renew a driver’s license. They saw a need for more ease and freedom in the voting process. They campaigned for such reforms as advance voting, mailed ballots, the scanning of paper ballots, and expanding the calendar for voting, among others.
When Graves was elected to his first term as governor in 1994, his deputy, Thornburgh, was elected Secretary of State; he continued the office legacy. The agency, with four divisions – Administration, Corporate Registration, Elections and Legislation, and Uniform Commercial Code – each headed by a deputy assistant secretary of state, continued to run well, at a small cost: five one-
hundredths of one percent of the state budget. Thornburgh, elected to four 4-year terms, left office in early 2010, several years after a space-hungry legislature – over his strong objections – removed the agency from its historic quarters in the Capitol to a maze of offices across the street. Chris Biggs served in the interim ten months through Kobach’s election and swearing-in as
Secretary of State in 2011.
The Shanahan legacy, a noble endowment, now dis-
solves in the acrid mists of Kobach’s rule. The secretary is no longer the encouraging headmaster; his name is mentioned mostly with dismissive whispers from the neglected and discouraged.
Kobach evokes the demagoguery of Huey Long and the venom in George Wallace. He helped Alabama and Arizona resurrect Jim Crow for their immigration and voting laws. He honed his product for Kansas, preaching the specter of aliens sneaking into polling places by the thousand to mark illegal ballots.
His effort to take his campaign national ended in the collapse last January of President Trump’s infamous commission on voter fraud. Kobach has since been proved wrong time and again in the judiciary, fined for lying to a court, and fined again for contempt in federal court. Yet he remains defiant, indignant, a candidate for governor possessed by his own delusions.
Kobach has become our viper in the garden – a Kansas embarrassment and a menace. He cajoled voters not once but twice, and now he coils, a candidate for governor longing to strike again.