TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas must count potentially thousands of votes in state and local races from people who've registered without providing citizenship documents, a county judged ruled on Friday.
The order from Shawnee County District Judge Larry Hendricks came only four days before Tuesday's primary election. Hendricks blocked an administrative rule from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
Hendricks' order will remain in effect at least through Sept. 21, when he plans to have another hearing to consider whether to block the rule through the November election. He said from the bench that he feels strongly about protecting people's right to vote.
"There is no right that is more precious in a free country," Hendricks said as he prepared to announce his decision in open court.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on behalf of three prospective voters earlier this month, a week after a state board allowed Kobach to impose the rule temporarily — through the November election — without a public hearing. It would have applied to people who register to vote at state motor vehicle offices without providing proof of their U.S. citizenship as required by a 2013 state law.
The affected Kansas voters still will receive ballots to be reviewed later, as planned. The rule from Kobach directed local election officials to count only their votes for federal offices, not state and local ones, but Hendricks' ruling requires all their votes to be counted.
Ahead of the primary, about 17,600 people registered at motor vehicle offices without providing citizenship papers. About 50,000 people could be affected in November.
Kobach's action was a response to a federal judge's ruling in May in another lawsuit that people who register at motor vehicle offices are entitled to vote in federal races even if they've not met the proof-of-citizenship requirement.
Federal law requires states to allow people to register at motor vehicle offices when they're obtaining or renewing driver's licenses. The federal judge ruled that people document their citizenship adequately for voting in federal races by signing a statement on the registration form, facing criminal penalties if it's not true.
Kobach, a conservative Republican, has championed the proof-of-citizenship requirement as an anti-fraud measure that keeps non-citizens from voting, including immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. He also argued that in complying with the federal judge's order, he's still required to enforce the proof-of-citizenship law as much as possible.
Kobach said he would not appeal Hendricks' decision Friday because it's not practical with the primary election so close. He said the ruling "essentially knocks a huge loophole" in the proof-of-citizenship law.
"It's really unfortunate because it is a certainty that aliens will be allowed to vote in this primary election as a result of this order," Kobach said.
Alabama, Arizona and Georgia have similar proof-of-citizenship but Kansas has gone the furthest to enforce its law. Kansas also has a requirement that voters show photo ID at the polls.
The Kansas ruling came the same day a federal appeals court blocked a North Carolina voter ID law, and earlier this month, another federal appeals court said Texas's strict voter ID law is discriminatory. In Wisconsin, a federal judge struck down GOP-authored election laws Friday.
The ACLU and other critics of proof-of-citizenship requirements say they suppress voter turnout — particularly among young and minority voters — far more than they combat fraud.
ACLU attorney Sophia Lakin, who argued the case in Kansas, noted that Kobach has touted photo ID and proof of citizenship laws around the nation. His visibility makes the Kansas ruling nationally significant.
"It sets a very important tone going forward," she said.
The ACLU had argued that setting up a two-tiered election system violates the affected voters' constitutional rights by treating them unequally. Hendricks said Kansas law did not appear to give Kobach the authority to create such a system.
Meanwhile, county election officials worried about the administrative headaches caused by a change so close to the election.
"It is craziness," said Don Merriman, the Saline County clerk, a Democrat. "It is frankly setting us up for mistakes to be made in all of the 105 counties. It is ludicrous we had to wait until this last hour."
Also contributing was Associated Press writer Roxana Hegeman in Wichita.
Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .