WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A coalition of voting rights groups on Friday sued a federal elections official who decided that residents of Alabama, Kansas and Georgia can no longer register to vote using a national form without providing proof of U.S. citizenship.
The 224-page complaint filed in federal court, also named in the suit the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. It was brought by the League of Women Voters, Project Vote, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and others.
Their complaint contends the action by executive director Brian Newby will hurt voter registration drives and deprive eligible voters of the right to vote in the presidential primary elections. It seeks a court order immediately blocking the changes to the federal voter registration form.
"Voters should not have to face an obstacle course to participate and vote," Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States said in a news release.
Newby did not return an after-hours phone message left Friday at his office. Commission spokesman Bryan Whitener Friday declined to comment on the suit because the commission had not yet seen it.
But Newby, who took the job in November, has said he was within his authority and believed he did not have the discretion to decide which state instructions were ok and which were not.
Newby sent letters dated Jan. 29 to the three states that had requested the change, and the new instructions were immediately posted on the agency's website. Under the new rules, any resident in those states who registers to vote using the federal form must show citizenship documentation — such as a birth certificate, naturalization papers or passport. In other states, no such documentation is needed to register. Voters need only sign a sworn statement.
"This change was unauthorized and illegal, and is hugely detrimental to voters in Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy program which is representing the League in the lawsuit. "With presidential primaries fast approaching, these citizens deserve clarity on how —or if — they can register to vote."
Earlier this month, EAC Commissioner Thomas Hicks, a Democrat, posted a blistering statement on the agency's website saying Newby's action constitutes a policy change that should have been taken up by the commission. Currently, there are three sitting members and a vacancy to be filled. Commissioners are appointed by the president and approved by the U.S. Senate. Newby was hired by the commissioners.
Arizona's refusal to accept voter registration applications on the federal form without proof of citizenship culminated in a U.S. Supreme Court decision which held that states must accept and use the federal form.
Newby's predecessor rejected requests from Kansas, Georgia and Arizona in 2014 to provide documentary proof of citizenship on the federal form. Kansas and Arizona then sued the EAC seeking to force the modifications. But the 10th Circuit Court in November 2014 sided with the commission against the states and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the states' appeal.
The lawsuit contends the timing of the executive director's decision could affect several upcoming federal elections, noting Alabama's primary election will be held March 1.