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GOP congressman faces felony charges over alleged voter fraud

It's not every day that a sitting congressman faces multiple felony counts, especially for voter fraud.
Image: Rep Steve Watkins
Rep. Steve Watkins, R-Kan., speaks during the Problem Solvers Caucus press conference in the Capitol on Feb. 11, 2020.Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call via AP file

The first sign of trouble came in December 2019, when the Topeka Capital-Journal reported that Rep. Steve Watkins (R-Kan.) listed a UPS Store on his election documents and voter-registration form as his residential address. The article added that the Kansas Republican, first elected a year earlier, was facing allegations of “voter fraud under federal law and election perjury under state statute.”

As the Kansas City Star reported late yesterday, those allegations have now taken a more serious turn.

Kansas Rep. Steve Watkins was charged Tuesday with three felonies and a misdemeanor related to an investigation into whether he illegally voted in a 2019 municipal election.... The felony charges are interference with law enforcement by providing false information, voting without being qualified and unlawful advance voting. Watkins also faces a misdemeanor charge for failing to the notify the DMV of his change of address.

The charges were filed by Shawnee County District Attorney Mike Kagay, whom local reports identified as a Republican prosecutor.

The timing of the charges was especially inconvenient for the incumbent GOP congressman: Watkins participated in a debate last night against his two primary challengers, and the criminal charges against him were announced about a half-hour before the event.

Since it's not every day that a sitting congressman faces multiple felony counts, especially for voter fraud, the event focused quite a bit on the criminal allegations. The first question of the night, posed to all three challengers, was, simply, "What is your response to the charges?"

"I haven't done anything wrong," Watkins said at the debate, which was sponsored by the NBC affiliate in Topeka. The Republican lawmaker added that he intends to clear his name, adding that he considers the timing of the charges "very suspicious" and "highly political."

Time will tell whether Watkins' defense proves persuasive, and by all appearances, he will move forward with his re-election campaign. Kansas' primaries are scheduled for Aug. 4, which is about three weeks away.

In terms of the electoral considerations, Kansas has earned a reputation as a reliably "red" state, but let's not forget that the state's 2nd congressional district, which Watkins represents, is one of the state's most competitive. In 2018, the GOP candidate won by less than a single percentage point, and Democrats saw the incumbent as vulnerable even before he faced criminal charges.

Indeed, the likely Democratic nominee in the race is Michelle De La Isla, the mayor of Topeka.

As for the broader far-right push for voting restrictions, I suppose it's likely that some Republicans will see the Watkins news and declare, "See? Voter fraud is real after all!" Let's nip this in the bud: even attempts at voter fraud are extraordinarily rare, and GOP proposals to address the largely non-existent scourge, such as voter-ID requirements, wouldn't have helped in a case like this.