WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Voting rights groups filed an appeal Friday of a judge's order that federal election officials must help Kansas and Arizona enforce state laws requiring new voters to provide documentation proving their U.S. citizenship.
A court filing sent to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals challenges a ruling earlier this month by U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren in Wichita. Melgren had ordered the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to immediately modify a national voter registration form to add special instructions requiring proof of citizenship for Kansas and Arizona residents.
The appeal was filed by more than a dozen voting rights groups and individuals who had earlier intervened in the case on behalf of the election commission. They include the League of Women Voters of the United States, Project Vote Inc., Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Common Cause, Arizona Advocacy Network, League of United Latin American Citizens Arizona, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, Chicanos Por La Causa and others.
The national president of the League of Women Voters, Elisabeth MacNamara, said the U.S. Supreme Court has already found that the National Voter Registration Act pre-empts state law requiring documentary proof of citizenship, and that Melgren's ruling is contrary to the Supreme Court decision handed down last year.
"What we believe the judge got it wrong and the judge did not follow the roadmap set out by the Supreme Court in making this decision," MacNamara said.
In a late court filing Friday, the voting rights groups also asked Melgren to stay his own order pending their appeal, arguing that they are likely to succeed in their appeal because his ruling misconstrues the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act and the Supreme Court's decision. They argued citizens would suffer widespread and irreparable harm by disenfranchisement and other barriers to voter registration, which will disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who brought the lawsuit, disputed that assertion, saying the judge in his ruling found that for the National Voter Registration Act to trump state laws there would have to be a statement to that effect in the wording of the federal law — and there was none.
"Judge Melgren's decision is very carefully researched and well-reasoned," Kobach said. "This is going to be a difficult decision for them to overturn on appeal."
The EAC had previously rejected the states' requests for the stiffer documentation requirements, finding that the added documentation results in an overall decrease in registration of eligible citizens — undermining the core purpose of the National Voter Registration Act.
The appeal is not expected to have any impact on the 2014 elections, unless the 10th Circuit issues a stay of Melgren's order, Kobach said.
Both Kansas and Arizona require people registering to vote to provide a birth certificate, passport or other documentation proving their U.S. citizenship. The federal registration form simply requires prospective voters to sign a statement, under penalty of perjury, declaring they are citizens.
Kobach has championed his state's proof-of-citizenship law as a way to prevent noncitizens from voting, particularly those in the U.S. illegally. Critics say incidents of non-citizens voting are extremely rare, and that such Republican-backed proof-of-citizenship laws hurt voter registration efforts and disenfranchise voters from certain groups that tend to vote Democrat, such as minorities and college students.
Kobach and Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, both conservative Republicans, sued the agency last year seeking the state-specific rules on the national form for their residents.
The Justice Department, which represents the EAC, has argued that changing the requirements for those two states would in essence affect nationwide policy, because it might encourage other states to seek increased proof of citizenship to register to vote in federal elections.