By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Efforts by Kansas and Arizona to require people who register to vote by mail to prove they are U.S. citizens were upheld by a federal judge on Wednesday, potentially opening the door for more states to enact such measures.
The two Republican-led states had sued the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, set up by Congress after chronic voting problems during the 2000 presidential election, saying the agency wrongly prevented them from demanding such documentation in voter registration forms in the state.
Laws passed in the two states requiring proof of citizenship for voters are part of a broader movement in many conservative states to demand would-be voters provide identification to ensure that non-citizens, including undocumented immigrants, cannot influence elections.
"Today's decision is an important victory for the people of Arizona against the Obama administration, assuring that only Arizona residents, and not illegals, vote in Arizona elections," said Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who filed the lawsuit along with Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach.
Advocates for immigrants, minority groups and the disabled have opposed such laws, saying they are really Republican-led efforts to prevent such voters from exercising their rights in communities where many tend to vote Democratic.
"What you have are Republican legislators across the country throwing up barriers to fix a problem that just does not exist," said Daniel Ortega, an Arizona civil rights attorney and activist who hopes the ruling will be overturned on appeal.
The Kansas and Arizona laws, he said, will have the effect of preventing legitimate U.S. citizens from voting.
"We don't need to be trying to keep people from voting, particularly people of color," Ortega said. "That's not a good message to be sending."
In his ruling on Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Eric F. Melgren, in Wichita, Kansas, said that because Congress had not outlawed proof of citizenship demands by states, the commission did not have the right to prevent Arizona and Kansas from adding such requirements to voter registration forms.
"The court finds the decision of the EAC denying the states' requests to be unlawful and in excess of its statutory authority," Melgren wrote.
He ordered the commission to immediately add the documentation requirement to mail-in voter registration forms intended for use in the two states. The federal form currently asks for a verbal pledge that the applicant is a U.S. citizen but does not require proof.
Jonathan Brater, an attorney for the League of Women Voters, which joined the case to oppose the two states' positions, said the group may appeal. He said Congress had considered imposing a documentation requirement but ultimately rejected the idea.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arizona had to use the federal voter registration form as written, and could not insist that voters submit proof of citizenship because such a requirement was not listed on the form, Melgren wrote.
But the court also said that the state could ask the commission to add that requirement for forms meant to be used in Arizona, Melgren said.
The commission declined to do that, prompting the lawsuit and Wednesday's ruling, Melgren said.
(Writing and additional reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)