Kobach Witness on Testifying: ‘I Wanted Him To Look Good’

Orlin Wagner/AP

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS — To defend his proof-of-citizenship law, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach on Monday summoned a witness who used the state’s hearing process to prove her citizenship. Kobach’s goal was to show that the rarely used process was not burdensome, and was a feasible way for people without their birth certificate or other citizenship documents to register to vote.

The woman, Jo French, did confirm that she didn’t find the process to be a burden, and said she thought other states should adopt proof-of-citizenship laws.

Read the latest reporter’s sum-up (Prime access) on voting rights »

But in other ways, French was perhaps not the best messenger for Kobach’s cause.

A feisty woman who was eager to crack a joke or wander off topic, French described a lengthy process, and at times made comments suggesting it was tougher on her than she was letting on. She also raised questions about her contacts with Kobach’s office leading up to her appearance Monday.

“I wanted [Kobach] to look good,” she said at one point, when asked about when the Secretary of State’s office reached out to her about testifying.

Only six Kansans at most have used the state’s hearings process, previous testimony has established.

French was born in Arkansas in 1941, and worked a variety of jobs there and in Denver, before retiring in Kansas, where she had some friends in Osage County.

She said she traveled to her local DMV in February 2016 to get a new  drivers’ license. Because of the state’s proof of citizenship requirement for driver’s licenses, she wasn’t able to get one, even as the tags on her car were changed to Kansas tags. Being able to register to vote was also important, she said.

At some point, she was put in contact with Eric Rucker in the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, who she said worked with her to help her get registered. She called Arkansas to try to get a birth certificate, which cost her $8, even though the state didn’t have it, it was revealed in cross examination. She knew it was unlikely they’d find it — she was born in her family’s home, and had twice before tried unsuccessfully to get birth records from the state. But she said she tried again anyway because that’s what Rucker suggested, and she wanted to make sure it looked like she was trying.

French eventually sent the state a copy of a family bible, in which her birth date was inscribed, as well as her high school records and her baptismal records. Getting her high school records, she said, only took about three days, after she called her high school. The “country” church where she was baptized had been closed, so she called an acquaintance in charge of the records of the church in town, where those records had been moved. In addition to sending over the baptismal records, that acquaintance also would send a hand-written letter. Another friend would talk to Rucker over the phone to confirm who French was.

“I wanted him to know the kind of people that were helping me,” French said. “There wasn’t any goofy stuff.

After gathering these documents, she sat in a hearing with Kobach and two other state officials. She was driven by a friend the 40 minutes to the Topeka meeting, as the weather was poor and she was worried about getting around. The meeting lasted around 30 minutes, and she said she “enjoyed” it, even boasting about her appearance on local television news.

Throughout the recounting of her tale, French made comments that appeared to undermine the notion that she did find not the process burdensome, nor the hearing intimidating. (They were probably more intimidated of me, she even cracked).

“I was hurt that no one believed me that I was an American citizen,” French said at one point. But almost immediately after, she added, “you’ve got to have proof that you belong her to vote.”

When discussing why it was important for her to be registered, French said, “I can’t imagine not having that right.”

“I worked very hard to get this done,” she added.

French was asked by the ACLU about when she was contacted about testifying. She said she was informed by Rucker last week to expect a call from Kobach, who French said she knew was a “busy man.”

“I wanted him to look good,” she said, of her decision to come and testify, referring to Kobach.

“I just don’t want the fraud that’s going on,” French added.

That and other comments French made about voter fraud prompted Judge Julie Robinson to ask her where she learned about the prevalence of fraud. Was it something she discussed with Rucker, whom she said she became friends with over the course of the process, or anyone else in the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, Robinson asked.

French said no, it was something she saw on television — not specifically coming from Kobach.

“It’s coming from Washington, D.C.,” she said.

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