TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach stepped aside from his duties as the state's top elections official Friday until his hotly contested Republican primary challenge to Gov. Jeff Colyer is resolved, but Colyer argued that Kobach still has a conflict of interest because Kobach is handing his responsibilities to his top deputy.
Kobach rejected Colyer's accusations that the advice he has been giving local elections on handling ballots violates state law. And the secretary of state — who has boosted his career by extrapolating scattered cases of election irregularities into claims of a serious election fraud problem — chastised Colyer in a letter over statements that, Kobach said, could undermine public confidence in the state's elections.
Colyer had demanded in his own letter Thursday that Kobach stop providing guidance to county officials as they counted late mail-in ballots from Tuesday's election and prepared to count other ballots next week.
"Although I would discharge my duties ethically, impartially, and responsibly, I have carefully considered your request and have decided that it is in the best interest of the citizens of Kansas that I permit another to perform the duties of the secretary of state until the conclusion of the 2018 primary election process," Kobach wrote.
Kobach's duties will go to Assistant Secretary of State Eric Rucker. Colyer was pressing Kobach to have state Attorney General Derek Schmidt advise county election officials — something Kobach argued isn't allowed by law.
Colyer spokesman Kendall Marr called Rucker "a good and decent man" but said assigning Kobach's duties to someone Kobach can fire "at any time" does not address "the clear conflict of interest that exists."
Schmidt already is anticipating the possibility of a lawsuit challenging the election results by Colyer or Kobach and sent a letter to county election officials, reminding them to preserve "any paper files, notes, or electronic data related in any way" to the election.
Updated totals with late mail-in ballots from all 105 counties counted left Kobach's lead over Colyer at 110 votes out of more than 313,000 cast, less than the 191 votes recorded the morning after Tuesday's election. Under state law, mail-in ballots are counted if they were postmarked Tuesday and arrive in county election offices by Friday.
Kobach is a conservative lightning rod who alienates even some fellow Republicans, but he is perhaps President Donald Trump's closest political ally in Kansas and had Trump's tweeted endorsement. Colyer, backed by the National Rifle Association and a strong abortion opponent, is trying to avoid becoming the first Kansas governor to lose a primary since 1956. The winner will move on to the November general election, where state Sen. Laura Kelly, of Topeka, is the Democratic candidate.
Colyer has accused Kobach of giving county election officials guidance "not consistent with Kansas law," and said Friday on Fox News that he was worried that some mail-in ballots were not being counted as required.
In addition to counting mail-in ballots, county officials must review nearly 9,000 provisional ballots, given to voters at the polls when their eligibility is in question. The counties have until Aug. 20 to finish. Colyer's campaign on Friday announced plans to have representatives in all 105 counties when provisional ballots are reviewed.
The secretary of state's role in the actual counting of ballots is limited: His office provides guidance, compiles statewide vote tallies and provides general supervision.
Kobach said Rucker also will serve on the three-member state board that will certify the primary's final results by Aug. 31. Colyer is also a member of that board, and Kobach called on him to let Lt. Gov. Tracey Mann serve on the board instead. Colyer did not say whether he would do so.
Kobach also defended previous actions, saying his advice on handling ballots was in keeping with state law and longstanding practices. He wrote to Colyer: "As governor of Kansas, your unrestrained rhetoric has the potential to undermine the public's confidence in the election process."
Kobach is a vocal advocate of tough voter identification laws and served as vice chairman of Trump's now-disbanded election fraud commission. He publicly backed Trump's unsubstantiated claims that several million illegal ballots may have been cast in the 2016 election, costing Trump the popular vote.
States vary considerably in who has authority over elections. In most, either an elected secretary of state is the chief election official or a lieutenant governor has those duties, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Georgia, Secretary of State Kemp, now the GOP nominee for governor, has faced calls to step down from his position, which oversees elections. His spokesman said he had no plans to resign, even though two predecessors, one from each party, did so over the past 25 years in seeking higher office.
And in Kentucky in 2014, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat, stayed in office while she ran for U.S. Senate, challenging longtime Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell. Although she did not face calls to step down, McConnell used the fact that she was drawing a state paycheck as a line of attack.
Associated Press writers Christina Almeida Cassidy and Ben Nadler in Atlanta, and Adam Beam, in Frankfort, Kentucky, also contributed.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna
Sign up for "Politics in Focus," a weekly newsletter showcasing the AP's best political reporting from around the country leading up to the midterm elections: https://bit.ly/2ICEr3D