Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the architect of the state's proof-of-citizenship law for new voters. / John Hanna, AP
A judge ruled Wednesday that federal officials must help Kansas and Arizona enforce state laws that require new voters to prove that they are U.S. citizens.
U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren in Wichita ruled that the federal Election Assistance Commission must fulfill requests from those states to print state-specific registration forms reflecting the additional proof.
"It is a big victory for Kansas and Arizona," said Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has helped several states draft laws that crack down on undocumented immigrants. "It's not only a victory personally, but it's a victory for the states of Kansas and Arizona and a victory more broadly for all fifty states."
The EAC prints federal voter registration forms given to people when they apply for driver's licenses or other social services. Those forms only require that applicants attest to being U.S. citizens by signing their name. Kansas and Arizona have passed laws requiring more proof, such as a birth certificate, passport, naturalization documents or tribal documentation.
In his ruling, Melgren said the National Voter Registration Act passed in 1993 does not prohibit states from asking for more documentation proving their citizenship, so he ordered the commission to begin printing the new forms.
"The Constitution gives each state exclusive authority to determine the qualifications of voters for state and federal elections," Melgren wrote in his opinion.
Kansas adopted more stringent citizenship requirements when its legislature passed the Secure and Fair Elections Law of 2011, known as the SAFE Act. The law required that people registering to vote after Jan. 1, 2013, needed to produce the additional documents to prove their citizenship.
Arizona has also required people registering to vote to provide additional proof of citizenship. But a law that required state officials to reject federal voter registration forms because they don't require as much proof was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year. Shortly after that decision, Arizona joined the Kansas lawsuit.
Nina Perales, who represented the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the lawsuit, said Wednesday's ruling will prove to be a "short-lived victory" for Kansas and Arizona. She said last year's Supreme Court ruling established that federal voter registration laws trump state laws and that Melgren failed to recognize that. So while a state can decide what kind of proof its requires to establish a voter's citizenship, states cannot dictate what the federal government should require.
"Arizona wasn't happy with losing in the Supreme Court, so they joined up with Kansas to bring a new lawsuit in Kansas to try and get a different decision," she said. "That's what happened today."
While most voters use state forms to register to vote, both states asked the Election Assistance Commission to alter the registration forms to reflect their new laws. Acting director Alice Miller said she could not act because all four commissioner positions at the EAC were vacant, and she could not act without a quorom. Those positions have been held up by Senate Republicans for years.
But Melgren ruled that she must act with or without the commissioners.
"The Court finds it unnecessary to address Miller's authority to act as acting executive director because the Court's decision would be the same if a full commission had voted 4-0 to deny the states' requests," he wrote.
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