Kansas and Arizona can require voters to produce proof of citizenship before letting them vote in federal elections, a judge ruled Wednesday.
The federal judge dealt the two states a decided win, ruling that the federal government overstepped its authority by limiting what the states could require of prospective voters.
U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren ordered the Election Assistance Commission to immediately modify the federal voter registration form for Kansas and Arizona to include proof of citizenship.
“Kansas has paved the way for all states to enact proof-of-citizenship requirements,” Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said.
Commission spokesman Bryan Whitener declined to comment, saying the ruling is being reviewed. He wouldn’t say how long it would take to change the federal registration form to comply with the decision.
The existing federal form, rarely used in Kansas, lets prospective voters register even when they lack documents if they declare under penalty of perjury that they are U.S. citizens.
Wednesday’s ruling puts the federal election requirement on par with those for state elections in Kansas, which has been requiring would-be voters to prove their citizenship with birth certificates, passports or other documents since the beginning of last year.
Kobach has long argued for the citizenship requirement to keep undocumented immigrants from casting ballots.
Critics argue the law, approved by the Kansas Legislature in 2011, poses an impediment to registering people to vote.
There are about 15,000 prospective Kansas voters whose registrations have been suspended because they haven’t supplied the documents needed to prove their citizenship. The court case doesn’t change their status.
But the decision means the state will not need a dual election system for voters in federal and state elections — segregating those who completed the state or the federal registration forms.
Nationally, voting rights experts contend that the court’s ruling — if it survives on near-certain appeals — could open the door for more states to enact laws requiring voters to produce documents proving their citizenship.
“It’s going to make it harder for groups to engage in voter registration efforts in states like Kansas and Arizona that have additional citizenship requirements,” said Rick Hasen, a voting rights scholar at the University of California, Irvine.
“There’s going to be more documentation required of new voters.”
The League of Women Voters called Melgren’s ruling “harsh.”
“The decision is so broad that it would allow a state to implement almost any restriction on voter registration,” national League of Women Voters President Elisabeth MacNamara said in a statement.
At the heart of the case was a battle over states’ rights and how far the federal government can go to regulate elections.
Melgren ruled that the federal government couldn’t stop the states from requiring proof of citizenship because Congress didn’t explicitly bar the practice.
“This is a big, big decision,” Kobach told reporters. “It goes beyond just the states of Kansas and Arizona and it goes beyond the issue of whether or not states may require documentary proof of citizenship for people registering to vote.”
Wednesday’s ruling was an outgrowth of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last summer involving Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship requirement.
In that case, the high court ruled that Arizona could not require proof of citizenship for federal elections. The court said states had to defer to a 1993 federal law requiring them to accept voter registrations turned in using the federal form.
However, the Supreme Court suggested states should ask the Election Assistance Commission to include the citizenship requirement on the form if they wanted.
The Supreme Court even urged states to sue the commission if it refused to act on their request. That’s the path Kansas and Arizona followed.
Leading up to the lawsuit, Kansas had tried twice unsuccessfully to get the proof-of-citizenship requirement added to the federal form.
In January, the agency’s executive director issued a 46-page ruling denying Kansas’ request.
The agency concluded that requiring prospective voters to provide anything more than a signed oath declaring their citizenship wasn’t necessary.