Kansas, Alabama and Georgia can demand their residents submit proof of citizenship before signing up to vote even if they’re using the federal government’s registration forms, a judge said Wednesday, delivering a win to states concerned about voter fraud.
The League of Women Voters and the Obama administration had tried to halt the practice, arguing that federal law doesn’t require an extensive citizenship check when people register to vote, and saying the three states were imposing an extra burden on voters.
But Judge Richard J. Leon said that while it may be an inconvenience to require proof of citizenship, and voter registration drives may have to do more work to get folks signed up, it’s not an insurmountable burden — and certainly less so than trying to explain Obamacare.
“The organizational plaintiffs and their members will undoubtedly have to expend some additional time and effort to help individuals,” Judge Leon wrote. “But let’s be candid: doing so pales in comparison to explaining to the average citizen how the [Affordable Care Act] or tax code works!”
Since the voter groups didn’t show a real and irreparable harm, he rejected their request for a preliminary injunction.
The ruling is the latest in a years-long struggle by some states to combat potential voter fraud by insisting voters prove they are citizens. In one Kansas count alone, officials count 25 instances of non-citizens attempting to register to vote.
“This is a very real problem and the only way to solve the problem is to require proof of citizenship on the front end,” said Kris W. Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state.
Voting rights groups dismiss those concerns, saying the bigger problem is barriers that prevent eligible voters from registering and showing up on Election Day. They and the Obama administration said requiring proof of citizenship adds to the burden, and said an oath affirming citizenship should be good enough.
The voting-rights groups said they are confident in their case, and they’d already begun to set up an appeal.
“While we are disappointed in today’s decision, we will appeal to protect the critical rights of voters in these three states, especially during this election year,” said Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters.
Hours before Judge Leon’s ruling, the voting-rights groups had filed a request for a new hearing to pressure him to decide, saying that time is running out to get folks registered for the November elections. Figuring they knew the outcome of his decision, they wanted to ensure they had enough time to appeal.
The case stems from what’s become a confusion patchwork of federal and state voting requirements after Congress wrote the so-called “Motor Voter” legislation in the 1990s. That law was designed to boost voting by making it easier to register, pushing state agencies to offer the chance to register when folks come in to use their services.
Federal forms are supposed to respect states, which under the Constitution are allowed to set most voter requirements.
But when states began to demand proof of citizenship at the front end, and asked the federal forms to respect their laws, some voting-rights groups balked. They tried to get the federal government to invalidate those state demands.
The Election Assistance Commission, which is the federal panel set up after the voting problems in the 2000 election, had previously sided with the groups — but earlier this year it approved requests from Kansas, Georgia and Alabama to reflect their demands for proof of citizenship.
The League of Women Voters says the EAC broke its own procedural rules in approving the states’ requests.
The Justice Department is supposed to defend the EAC in court challenges, but the Obama administration refused to do so in this case, saying it believes the EAC is going beyond the requirements of federal law.
That drew a rebuke from Judge Leon, who said it was unprecedented in his years on the bench for the department not to defend an agency it was required to represent under the law. He said it was even more stunning for the department to side with the voting-rights groups and demand the court overturn the EAC’s decision.
Mr. Kobach said the Justice Department is supposed to defend agencies whenever they have a plausible argument for their actions, and in this case the EAC can show it’s following the law.
“Here, the Justice Department discarded the law and discarded tradition and is going purely on partisan impulse,” Mr. Kobach said.
Kansas is already enforcing its citizenship requirement, but Alabama and Georgia have theirs on hold right now.
Mr. Kobach is also fighting another case in which a federal judge in Kansas ruled against him, finding that the state can’t demand proof of citizenship for voters who sign up at motor vehicle offices. Judge Julie Robinson said the motor-voter law says voters only need to provide a minimum amount of information, and that doesn’t include proving their citizenship.
She ordered Mr. Kobach to re-register thousands of people who’d tried to register but failed to meet the proof of citizenship requirement.
Mr. Kobach has appealed that decision.