Then-President-elect Donald Trump and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Columnist

Kris Kobach’s collection of sheepskins suggests a pretty big brain to go with his tall, broad-shouldered frame. The right-wing candidate for Kansas governor has degrees from Harvard, Oxford and Yale. But to watch him war with figments of his imagination — a fictional army of fraudulent voters — makes one think of that old ad campaign: A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

On Monday, the chief of the U.S. District Court in Kansas, Judge Julie A. Robinson, popped the bubble of Kobach’s obsession. She ruled, after a lengthy trial, that Kobach, Kansas’s secretary of state, produced no credible support for his theory that large numbers of noncitizens are illegally voting in American elections. Thus, the Kobach-inspired law requiring Kansas voters to provide documentary proof of citizenship is ­unconstitutional because it imposes the burden without a reasonable ­justification.

“At most, 67 noncitizens registered or attempted to register in Kansas over the last 19 years,” the judge found. Of those, only 39, at most, actually ended up on voter rolls, put there largely by clerical mistakes, not fraud. They went to the motor vehicles department for a driver’s license and accidentally registered to vote. “Some applicants told the . . . clerk that they were not citizens, yet the clerk completed a voter registration application” anyway.

“Given the almost 2 million individuals on the Kansas voter rolls, some administrative anomalies are expected,” the judge continued. After all, the Kansas rolls indicate that 100 voters were born in the 1800s — highly unlikely given the scarcity of 120-year-old Kansans. For that matter, human errors have recorded 400 Kansas voters as having birth dates subsequent to their dates of registration.

This case was no mere tempest in Topeka. Kobach, as much as any individual, is the author of right-wing mania over mass voter fraud. Tilting at the windmills of his mind, he has traveled far and wide promoting his theories to state legislators and Republican policy groups. When President Trump urgently sought to wave away Hillary Clinton’s popular-vote margin of more than 2.8 million in 2016, it was Kobach to the rescue. A week after a visit from the Kansas conspiracy theorist, the president-elect tweeted: “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Impressed by his fellow birther, Trump appointed Kobach vice chairman of an ill-starred commission on supposed voter fraud; it fizzled like a wet matchstick. By then, Kobach was busy again back home, defending his crackpot theories in Robinson’s courtroom.

Ducking and dodging so vigorously that the judge, a Republican appointee, held him in contempt of court, Kobach tried to argue that the tiny number of mistaken registrations actually proves the existence of a vast horde. He “insists that these numbers are just ‘the tip of the iceberg.’ This trial was his opportunity to produce credible evidence of that iceberg, but he failed to do so,” Robinson scolded. “The Court draws the more obvious conclusion that there is no iceberg; only an icicle.”

In retrospect, Kobach may be a victim of his own success — or a textbook example of the Peter Principle, which holds that people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. Winning the post of secretary of state in 2010 placed him in charge of Kansas elections, giving him the tools he needed to prove the righteousness of his quest. Like Joseph McCarthy waving his phony list of communists, Kobach reached a point where he had to put up or shut up.

But that’s been just another fizzle. As the judge acidly noted: “Defendant already has prosecutorial authority over Kansas election crimes. Yet, since obtaining this authority . . . Defendant has filed zero criminal complaints against noncitizens for registering to vote.”

As a final measure of disdain for the highly educated Kobach, the judge ordered him back to school. Appalled by his apparent lack of courtroom knowledge, Robinson required Kobach to complete a ­refresher course in trial procedure before he can renew his law license — quite a smackdown for a former law professor.

Unsurprisingly, Kobach promised to appeal Robinson’s ruling (though the last time he challenged her, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit took Robinson’s side). But the real prize he covets is political, not legal. Kobach will wear this defeat, in a Trumpian cause, like a badge of honor in his GOP primary against incumbent Gov. Jeff Colyer. Polls taken before the ruling, but after Kobach was held in contempt of court, found the race to be highly competitive, with plenty of voters undecided.

Time was when chasing phantoms could earn a Kansan a trip to the state hospital in Osawatomie. Kris Kobach hopes to chase his into the governor’s office — and maybe beyond.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.