Something truly bizarre happened last night in the runup to a GOP congressional primary debate in Kansas. Republican Congressman Steve Watkins (KS-2) was preparing to take the stage against two primary opponents when he received some unexpected and potentially politically damaging news. The District Attorney had just slapped him with four counts of voter fraud, including three felony charges. That changed the tone of the debate, to say the least, as it immediately became the first question of the evening from the moderators. (NBC News)
A Kansas congressman was slapped with voting fraud charges on Tuesday about a half-hour before having to take the stage in the state’s GOP primary debate.
“I haven’t done anything wrong,” Republican Rep. Steve Watkins said in the NBC affiliate KSNT debate, calling the timing of the charges “very suspicious” and “highly political.”
“I look forward to clearing my name. I have done nothing wrong and look forward to setting the record straight,” he added.
Watkins said he hadn’t yet seen the charges, which Kansas media reported were announced by District Attorney Mike Kagay shortly before Watkins’ debate against his two challengers.
Watkins called the charges “hyper-partisan” when asked about them. The timing is certainly curious to be sure, particularly with the primary coming up on August 4th, and the details of the crimes he’s being accused of don’t exactly paint a picture of some mastermind plan to thwart the state’s voting laws. But that’s not to say that he didn’t screw up.
Let’s look at the specifics of the charges first. Last year, Watkins registered to vote in the 2019 local city and school board election in November but he entered the address of a Topeka UPS store as his residence. As the Congressman explained during the debate, he had accidentally listed his campaign mailing address on the form instead of his actual home address. He submitted a new registration listing his apartment, located roughly two miles from the UPS store, as his actual residence. But he forgot to include the apartment number, so he had to file yet another correction.
The UPS store was in a different city council district, though still well inside of his congressional district. But by the time the error had been noted and corrected, he’d already gone and voted for the local elections in the wrong city district. So did he break the law? Well… technically, yes. He did. Voting in the wrong district is a violation of the voting laws, as is filing a form with a false address. But were any of those things done intentionally? I think we can let common sense be our guide here. Are we to assume that a sitting member of Congress would risk his career and potentially his freedom just to slip one more vote to his favorite candidate in a hotly contested… school board election? I think not.
That brings us to the timing of the announcement. Even if the investigation did conclude yesterday in some strange coincidence, I’m fairly sure the District Attorney could have waited until today for the formal filing. Doing this right before the start of the debate certainly seems questionable. But DA Mike Kagay is a Republican. Both he and Watkins are strong Trump supporters with similar campaign messages, particularly in terms of cracking down on violent crime. I suppose we can’t rule out some personal animus that Kagay could have against Watkins for causes unknown, but this affair still stinks on ice, at least in terms of the timing.
Watkins obviously made a mistake. Well… a couple of mistakes, actually. And as an elected official he’ll have to be accountable for them. But two mistakes on voter registration forms isn’t exactly a crime wave. And casting your vote in the local elections at the precinct you were directed to based on your inaccurate registration form also doesn’t exactly carry the stench of some broader corruption scheme. Watkins screwed up, but the handling of this debacle is certainly questionable, to say the least.