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January 18, 2014

Feds reject voter registration changes for states

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission on Friday rejected requests by Kansas, Arizona and Georgia to modify federal registration forms to allow their states to fully implement proof-of-citizen voting laws for their residents.

The decision came just hours before a court-imposed deadline in a lawsuit filed by Kansas and Arizona in U.S. District Court in Kansas. Georgia is not part of that litigation but has similar requirements.

The agency found that granting the states’ requests would “likely hinder eligible citizens from registering to vote in federal elections,” undermining the core purpose of the National Voter Registration Act.

Most immediately, the issue will likely return to the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren, who has held onto litigation in anticipation of further proceedings.

Both states enacted laws requiring new voters to provide a birth certificate, passport or other proof of U.S. citizenship when registering to vote, and most voters use state forms that enforce the requirement. But some voters use the federal form, which requires only that someone sign a statement under oath that he or she is a U.S. citizen, and Kansas and Arizona want to force a change to close what their officials see as a loophole in enforcement of their proof-of-citizenship requirements.

The U.S. Justice Department has argued that changing the requirements on the federal form for residents of Kansas and Arizona would in essence affect nationwide policy because it might encourage every state to seek increased proof of citizenship in order to register for federal elections.

Secretary of State Kris Kobach has pushed his state’s proof-of-citizenship law to keep non-citizens from voting particularly those in the U.S. illegally. But critics say voter fraud is extremely rare and contend such laws suppress the vote and threaten to keep thousands of citizens from casting ballots. The registrations of 20,127 Kansans remained on hold Friday because they’ve not yet provided proof of their citizenship to election officials.

The court is expected to set an evidentiary hearing to take up the states’ request that the judge force the commission to modify their form.

Melgren said last month he has serious reservations about the federal government’s power to rule on the voter registration issue. Regardless of how the judge ultimately rules in the case, the issue is likely to be appealed.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Arizona could not refuse to accept the national voter registration form, even though people who use it aren’t required to provide citizenship documents.

Kobach has said that if he cannot get either the commission or Melgren to modify the federal registration form with state-specific requirements, he would institute a dual registration that limits Kansans who register with the federal form to voting only in presidential, U.S. Senate and congressional races.  

A separate American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit contends Kobach has no authority to create a dual registration system in Kansas.

Several Democratic lawmakers in Kansas have proposed rewriting or repealing the state’s proof-of-citizenship law. Former state Sen. Jean Schodorf, the expected Democratic challenger for Kobach, is calling on legislators to audit how Kobach’s office has administered the law.

 

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