Federal judge to decide Kansas proof-of-citizenship voting rule

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach heads to court on Tuesday for a crucial hearing in his legal quest to force federal elections officials to require proof-of-citizenship documentation from Kansas and Arizona residents who register to vote using the federal form.

In a case with broad implications for voting rights, the two states have asked U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren to order the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to include the stricter registration requirements for their voters.

Kansas and Arizona require voters to provide a birth certificate, passport or other proof of U.S. citizenship when registering to vote. People who register using the federal form sign only a statement under oath that they are U.S. citizens.

Kobach has championed his state’s proof-of-citizenship law as a way to keep noncitizens 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.

Several voting rights groups have joined the lawsuit, and Kansas voters whose registrations have been suspended because of the proof-of-citizenship rules also plan to speak out at a news conference at the courthouse organized by the Kansas People’s Action to denounce those requirements before the legal proceedings.

The dispute stems from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that Arizona could not refuse to accept the national voter registration form. Arizona and Kansas then sued in U.S. District Court in Kansas.

The Election Assistance Commission denied requests last month from Kansas, Arizona and Georgia to change the federal form. The commission found that heightened proof-of-citizenship requirements likely would hinder eligible citizens from voting in federal elections. Georgia is not part of the lawsuit filed by Kansas and Arizona, but federal officials have said a ruling in the case could have widespread implications for similar requests from other states.

To reach a decision on whether overturn the commission’s decision rejecting those state requests, Melgren must first determine whether the agency’s ruling was arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise unlawful. He must also consider whether the agency action was contrary to a constitutional right or whether it exceeded its authority.

The commission has argued that requiring additional citizenship documentation is unnecessary and inconsistent with National Voter Registration Act because safeguards already exist that allow election officials to determine applicants’ eligibility and citizenship status, including national databases of birth certificates and naturalization information.

The states contend that proof-of-citizenship is not any less of a legal requirement simply because the agency does not think it is necessary. Kobach argued the commission is legally required to include the Kansas and Arizona instructions on the federal voter registration form – a claim the agency disputes.

The commission has cited as evidence the problems Kansas already has experienced with its own enhanced voter registration requirements. The voter registrations of 14,843 Kansans remained on hold Monday because they’ve not yet provided proof of their citizenship to election officials.

Among them is Michael Nucci, who moved to Wichita in late 2012 from New York, where he was born. He got a Kansas identification card and registered to vote that same year, even showing officials at the Department of Motor Vehicles his U.S. passport and telephone bill as proof of residency.

The following year he moved into residential home for the disabled in Wichita. Nucci, who suffers from epilepsy and has to arrange for transportation, then went back to the DMV to change his address on his state identification card. A week later, he received a notice that his voter registration had been suspended.

“It is ridiculous,” Nucci said. “And that just made me more aggravated.”