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Facing awkward questions, Kansas' Kobach signals change in direction

In the nation's closest contest, Kansas' Kris Kobach is already facing some awkward questions -- and it's likely to get worse before it gets better.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach talks about the Kansas voter ID law in his Topeka, Kan., office May 12, 2016. (Photo by Dave Kaup/Reuters)
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach talks about the Kansas voter ID law in his Topeka, Kan., office May 12, 2016.

One of the most closely watched Republican primaries of the year also turned out to be one of the closest. In a contest pitting incumbent Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer against Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the two are nearly tied, with less than 0.1% of the vote separating them.

The problem -- that is, one of the problems -- is that the process in the coming days and weeks will be complex, complete with provisional ballots, mail-in ballots, and a likely recount. Kobach oversees the state's elections, and in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's primary, he said he was perfectly comfortable overseeing this one, despite the obvious conflict of interest.

Last night, as the Kansas City Star  reported, the notorious secretary of state appeared to adopt a new posture.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said in a cable news interview Thursday night that he plans to recuse himself from the vote tally process in the face of pressure from Gov. Jeff Colyer and mounting confusion over vote totals.Kobach said that he would recuse himself in an interview with CNN hours after Colyer had sent a letter demanding that Kobach refrain from instructing county election officials on the counting of ballots in the primary race for governor on a day when the vote total narrowed to roughly 100 votes as multiple counties reported that vote totals were incorrect."I'll be happy to recuse myself. But as I say, it really doesn't make any difference. My office doesn't count the votes. The counties do," Kobach said in an interview with host Chris Cuomo.

At the risk of sounding picky, I'm not altogether certain Kobach has, in fact, recused himself from this process. Taking his words at face value, he signaled a willingness to recuse, but that's not quite the same thing as formally stepping aside.

Indeed, a spokesperson for the governor told the Star last night, "We don't have an official recusal," Marr said. "We want to see what that looks like tomorrow. We want to make sure it's not a symbolic recusal. The secretary of state has a substantive role in this process and the recusal needs to be substantive."

Just as important are the steps that led up to Kobach's comments last night -- because despite his claims of detachment, he and his office are already facing some awkward questions.

For example, 100 additional votes for Colyer were discovered yesterday, after a county clerk said the governor received 522 votes on Tuesday, though the secretary of state's office reported that tally as 422. The clerk produced the paperwork she submitted, and insisted it was Kobach's office that was responsible for the discrepancy.

Complicating matters, the governor believes Kobach has provided local clerks with incorrect information about how votes should be tallied.

"It has come to my attention that your office is giving advice to county election officials -- as recently as a conference call yesterday -- and you are making public statements on national television which are inconsistent with Kansas law and may serve to suppress the vote in the ongoing Kansas primary election process," Colyer wrote.

In the face of these accusations, Kobach can't exactly fall back on his sterling reputation for honesty and propriety, since he's generally known for the opposite.

There's every reason to believe the fight in Kansas is going to get worse before it gets better.