U.S. Rep. Steve Watkins' signing of a Kansas voter registration form and two other election documents declaring his residential address was a UPS Store in Topeka could constitute felony voter fraud under federal law and election perjury under state statute, officials said Tuesday.

Shawnee County records show the first-term Republican listed his official residence as 6021 S.W. 29th St. in Topeka, which corresponds to a UPS Store, when he signed a form to change his residency for voter registration purposes in August, signed an application for a mail-in ballot in October and signed a document to complete advance voting for the November election.

 

It isn't clear where the congressman physically resided in Kansas after August nor what Topeka precinct he was legally qualified to be part of when voting in November. By asserting his place of residence to be the UPS Store, Watkins left the Topeka City Council's 5th District for the city council's 8th District. He then cast a November ballot in an 8th District contest decided by 13 votes.

Jim Joice, Watkins' chief of staff, said questions about the residency issue posed by The Topeka Capital-Journal led to a staff review of the congressman's voter registration. He said Watkins mistakenly portrayed his residence to be the UPS building.

"He just filed it incorrectly," said Joice, who deflected criticism of Watkins. "I think that's a little ludicrous."

A bipartisan contingent of Kansas politicians was critical of Watkins' handling of his residential declaration. Several of these Democrats and Republicans said they suspected Watkins' acts rose to the level of criminal conduct.

State Rep. Blake Carpenter, a conservative Republican from Derby, was among lawmakers who called for an official investigation based on a sense Watkins committed multiple felony offenses.

"Unless I’m mistaken, no one can live at a UPS store. It cannot be a place of residence," said Carpenter, who serves on the House Elections Committee. "This person undoubtedly voted in an election in November for candidates that he had no constitutional right to vote for. This is wrong and illegal. No one should be above the law."

Kansas statute governing voter qualifications defines "residence" as the place chosen to be a person's place of habitation or where, when absent, the person had expressed an intent to return.

State law also requires individuals, when registering to vote, to submit to county officials a "place of residence, including specific address or location."

On three documents signed by Watkins and obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal, the congressman asserted his residential address in Topeka was the commercial property housing the UPS business. After moving to Kansas from Alaska in September 2017, Watkins had his election mail delivered to the UPS location.

Katie Koupal, deputy assistant secretary of state for Kansas, said state law necessitated that every person registering to vote in Kansas identify a residence. She said the state had allowed post office boxes to be used to handle election mailings in rare instances, particularly in rural areas where not every home had a formal U.S. Postal Service address. The UPS business linked to Watkins markets to customers an opportunity to maintain a physical street address for mail deliveries in lieu of a standard post office box.

"The voter registration form makes clear that individuals who provide false information could be subject to perjury," Koupal said. "It is up to local authorities to determine how they would move forward with those situations."

Andrew Howell, election clerk for Shawnee County, said his responsibility wasn't to accept or reject voter registration documents based on whether the applicant's home address was valid. He said his so-called ministerial role put him in the position of accepting what people were willing to sign under the threat of prosecution. A district attorney or a county attorney is responsible for considering issues of criminality or formulating a case in court, he said.

"I'm legally required to accept applications. Let a court and prosecutor make a determination as to what is acceptable," he said.

Under state law, election perjury would constitute a level nine nonperson felony punishable by up to seven months in prison and a fine of $100,000. The penalty in federal law could be five years in prison and a $10,000 fine for people guilty of willfully giving false information about an address when establishing eligibility for registration.

Watkins faced a wave of skepticism during his 2018 campaign because of his ownership of two homes in Alaska and lack of ownership of a house in Kansas. During the past two years, Watkins claimed on election documents that he lived in Topeka rental homes. Officially, he left the last of those residences at 320 S.E. 44th St. by designating the UPS Store as his home.

On Aug. 30, Watkins filed with the state's division of motor vehicles a change of residential address related to his voter registration. His official residence became the UPS business at 6021 S.W. 29th St., Suite A150. He requested a mail-in ballot for that address in west Topeka on Oct. 28, but he directed the ballot to be sent to a private residence in Washington, D.C., which was the home of Joice, the congressman's chief of staff.

Watkins signed his ballot envelope by again affirming 6021 S.W. 29th St. as his Topeka residence for voting purposes. His ballot was counted Nov. 5 by the Shawnee County Election Office.

State Rep. Bill Sutton, a Republican from Gardner who chairs the Kansas House Elections Committee, said he had spoken out in the past against political candidates who attempted to mislead voters about where they lived. He said authorities ought to examine evidence in the Watkins case to determine whether laws were broken by repeatedly claiming a UPS Store as a home.

"From the surface, that's not a good look," Sutton said. "That's a horrible look. Does it cross a legal line? I can't answer that without looking into it more."

Democratic state Sen. David Haley, a Kansas Senate election committee member from Kansas City, Kan., said state or federal prosecutors ought to explore the lack of transparency by Watkins in regards to his personal address in the 2nd District of Kansas. Conduct of public officials in terms of registering to vote and actual voting in elections warrants careful scrutiny, he said.

"They should be held to the highest standard," Haley said.

Watkins' path to re-election must go through an August primary where opposition would include State Treasurer Jake LaTurner, who was urged by former GOP Gov. Jeff Colyer to abandon a U.S. Senate campaign and challenge Watkins for the U.S. House seat.

In 2018, Watkins won a seven-candidate GOP primary by claiming 26% of the vote. He defeated Democrat Paul Davis in the general election by less than 1 percentage point. Watkins and his father, a Topeka physician, contributed more than $1 million to that campaign. There is no declared Democratic candidate in the 2020 race for the eastern Kansas district of the U.S. House.

Kris Kobach, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, took a keen interest in prosecuting cases of alleged voter fraud while serving as secretary of state in Kansas. He secured about 10 convictions among people who primarily broke laws by double voting in Kansas and a neighboring state during the same election cycle. Some of those defendants were fined $5,000 as part of plea agreements.

In a 2016 case, Kobach extracted a $2,500 penalty from Randall Kilian of Ellis County for voting without being legally registered in Kansas.

"Mr. Kilian effectively canceled out the vote of a legitimate Kansas voter," Kobach said. "Prosecuting these crimes sends the message to Kansas citizens that their vote absolutely matters and will be protected."

Democratic Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, said Kobach demonstrated no mercy to violators brought to justice by the secretary of state's office. Shawnee County or federal prosecutors looking into Watkins shouldn't allow party affiliation or political status to impede an inquiry, Carmichael said.

"When it comes to someone running for public office, it is a different matter. They know better," Carmichael said.

In November, The Associated Press reported Watkins paid an outstanding debt to a homeowner association in Alaska that had initiated a foreclosure action on a condominium owned by the congressman. Loch Ness Manor Condominium Association filed a lawsuit in October against Watkins to foreclose on a $166,000 property in Eagle River, a community near Anchorage. The foreclosure was blocked when Watkins paid a $1,500 debt to the association.