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Progressive group calls for probe of federal voting official

A progressive group wants an investigation into the head of a federal voting panel's move to help red states make voter registration harder.
I Voted stickers are shown at a polling station, Nov. 6, 2012 in Youngstown, Ohio.
I Voted stickers are shown at a polling station, Nov. 6, 2012 in Youngstown, Ohio.

The embattled director of the U.S. agency that helps states run elections has yet another headache to deal with: A progressive group wants an internal investigation into whether Brian Newby violated agency policy when he communicated with several Republican secretaries of state not long before helping them impose onerous new restrictions on voter registration.

In a letter sent Thursday, the group, Allied Progress, asked the inspector general of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to probe Newby’s communications with Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a political ally who had long been pushing the EAC to make it easier for his state to require proof of citizenship from people registering to vote.

RELATED: EAC director sued over move to make voter registration harder

Beneath the Washington infighting, the controversy could affect access to the ballot for many tens of thousands of voters as the first presidential election in 50 years without the protections of the Voting Rights Act approaches.

Karl Frisch of Allied Progress wrote to EAC Inspector General Patricia Layfield that Newby may have run afoul of agency policies “by having what appear to be several private, off-the-record communications with state election officers” about the proof of 

"I have received the letter," Layfield told MSNBC. "I take all allegations of wrongdoing very seriously and I will be reading the letter carefully and considering the information." She added that she could not promise an investigation would be conducted.

The call for an investigation is just the latest development in a growing furor over Newby’s role in green-lighting the proof of citizenship change, which also has prompted a lawsuit by voting rights groups. Newby faces other challenges, too: A report released last month by Johnson County, Kansas found that Newby improperly claimed personal expenses and wasted taxpayer money when he was the county’s top elections officials.

For years, Kobach, a backer of strict voting and citizenship laws, had been pushing the EAC to change the state-specific instructions for Kansas that accompany the federal voter registration form. Kobach wanted the form to say that voters in his state must present proof of citizenship when they register to vote. Kansas, as well as Georgia and Alabama, have passed laws requiring such proof. Twice, the EAC had rebuffed Kobach, saying the change would violate federal voting law, which aims to make voting as easy as possible. A federal court agreed in 2014. But in January, less than two months after becoming the EAC’s new executive director, Newby quietly changed the instructions for all three states.

Last week, the Associated Press revealed emails exchanged between Kobach and Newby before Newby took the EAC post. In one, Newby told Kobach that he could “count on” Newby and promised to keep Kobach “in the loop.” Newby also wrote in an email to Kobach that because he was friends with two of the Republican commissioners on the EAC, "I think I would enter the job empowered to lead the way I want to.” Kobach told the AP that he recommended Newby for the executive director job to at least one EAC commissioner.

Newby told MSNBC in February that he spoke privately to Kobach and to the GOP secretaries of state of Georgia and Alabama before he changed the instructions.

“If Newby’s claims to MSNBC in February are also proven true, his private conversations with the Secretaries of State for Georgia and Alabama may have violated EAC policy as well,” wrote Allied Progress in the Thursday letter.

As Johnson County’s elections administrator, Newby appears to have enjoyed a cozy relationship with Kobach, who reappointed him to that position in 2014, calling him “an extraordinary election commissioner.” On his personal blog about election administration, Newby wrote that those and other compliments from Kobach, offered at Newby’s swearing-in ceremony, “made me kind of misty.” In 2012, Newby wrote that Kobach has been “that steady hand that Kansans expect of their secretary of state.”

But not everyone in Johnson County was pleased with Newby’s performance. The scathing county audit released last month questioned nearly $40,000 in products and services purchased under Newby and recommended that he reimburse the county $5,478 for improper payments made to him personally. Among the items that Newby used county money to buy were a baby monitor, a $1,500 Google Glass Explorer and a $480 GoPro camera. Newby told the auditors that he liked to buy technical equipment up front, then find an elections-related use for them later.

The exact impact of Newby’s decision to change the voter registration form isn’t yet clear, and the courts could still put a stop to it. But if it stands, it could allow the three red states to require proof of citizenship for anyone wanting to register to vote in any election. It could also make it easier for Kobach to throw out around 30,000 voter registration forms already submitted by people who didn’t provide the necessary documents, as he has been seeking to do.