Oh, Republicans and voter fraud. The party’s self-serving obsession with excluding specific Americans from the country’s democratic system because someone, somewhere out there might get the bright idea to commit a crime has always been a political boogeyman. But every once in a while, with no sense of irony, some power-hungry, rules-averse Republican politician goes and proves them right! This time we have first-term GOP Rep. Steve Watkins of Kansas, who, on Tuesday, was charged with three felonies related to Watkins’ pretty iffy looking voter registration on which he stated his home address was a Topeka UPS store. The Watkins campaign said it was a mistake, but the district attorney disagreed, charging the congressman with multiple felonies for voting without being qualified, unlawful advance voting, providing false information, and interference with law enforcement.
Watkins’ backstory is hazy, which raised a number of eyebrows during his first run for office in 2018 when he won a crowded Republican primary with 26 percent of the vote. Until then, Watkins was a longtime resident of Alaska before appearing to carpetbag into Kansas to run for office. Watkins does have family connections to the state; he left Kansas after high school, and after 20 years elsewhere, Watkins said the state “was always home in my heart.” Watkins’ other home was Alaska, where he owns two condos, purchased in 2005 and 2015, and, according to the Anchorage Daily News, where he “applied 11 times between 2002 and 2015 for the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, a payment to those who have lived in the state for a full year and say they intend to remain indefinitely.” The Kansas residence on his 2018 voter registration that allowed him to successfully run for Congress was rented.
Watkins’ out-of-thin-air candidacy in 2018 was funded largely by a political action committee set up by his father and by his own personal money, a setup that contributed more than $1 million to the election effort and is now facing Federal Election Commission scrutiny. Watkins, it seems, has always relied on, shall we say, the bright side of the truth. Yes, he was a veteran, but then he spent many more years as a military contractor. On the campaign trail, Watkins said he started and grew his own business, a defense contracting company, but it turned out that he just worked for one. He climbed mountains and competed in races, but there was always an element of bluster in the retelling.
The Watkins haze continued once in office. In late 2019, after having already eked out a narrow win to become a U.S. congressman, Watkins changed his voter registration ahead of a Topeka municipal election that November. His new voter registration listed a building that housed a UPS store as his home address, shifting his vote into a different city council district that would later be decided by just 13 votes. That seems like a lot of potential fraud for one city council election that he wasn’t even involved in. Watkins had changed his residence in August, applied for a mail-in ballot in October, and then voted early ahead of the November race, before later changing his home address to a Topeka rental apartment.
The Topeka Capital-Journal perhaps summed up Watkins’ residential life best in a December investigation into the issue, concluding: “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.” That’s not really a great sign, of anything really. Why all the housing shenanigans then? Here’s the best potential answer, if not the correct one, from the Kansas City Star, which reports that some in the state believe that “Watkins was living with parents at the time, but used the UPS address to obscure that fact.”