US judge defers ruling in Kansas voting citizenship case

AP News
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Posted: Mar 03, 2017 7:19 PM

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — A judge on Friday began weighing the fate of two federal lawsuits in Kansas challenging the constitutionality of a state law that requires prospective voters to prove their U.S. citizenship.

U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson deferred a ruling after presiding over a three-hour hearing in which Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach — a conservative Republican who has championed the proof-of-citizenship requirement — defended it against claims that it disenfranchises tens of thousands of would-be Kansas voters.

"If there were ever a system crying out for judicial review, it would be this one," Orion Danjuma, a New York-based American Civil Liberties Union attorney for the plaintiffs, told Robinson.

Kobach countered that many who don't supply the required citizenship proof simply won't or have the documents and simply failed to follow up. The "plaintiffs continue to push an illogical conclusion on this court" by claiming those without the required paperwork automatically are disenfranchised, Kobach argued.

At the crux of the lawsuits is a disputed voter registration law requiring prospective Kansas voters to provide documents such as a birth certificate, naturalization papers or passport proving U.S. citizenship.

Appeals court decisions have temporarily allowed people who registered at motor vehicle offices or with a federal form to vote even if they didn't show citizenship documentation in Kansas. But those cases have yet to be decided on their merits.

In May, Robinson issued a preliminary injunction requiring Kansas to add to voter rolls people who registered at motor vehicle offices, regardless of whether they provided documentary proof of citizenship.

On Friday, Kobach again defended the requirement as an anti-fraud measure that keeps non-citizens out of the polls, including immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. Kobach, who has insisted Kansas has a compelling interest in protecting the integrity of its election process, credited the law with detecting two dozen cases of possibly fraudulent voter activity in southern Kansas' Sedgwick County.

Critics say such requirements suppress voter turnout, particularly among young and minority voters, and that there have been few cases of voter fraud in the past.

"We don't see a way that this statute can be constitutionally enforced," Mark Johnson, another attorney for the plaintiffs, told Robinson. "The evidence of voter fraud the state has provided is ephemeral. It's old. It's thin."

Robinson also heard debate Friday over claims that the state's requirement unconstitutionally burdens the right to vote and violates the right to travel because it allegedly discriminates against U.S. citizens who come to Kansas from other states.

The discrimination issue arises in part because Kansas independently verifies citizenship documentation already on file with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment for residents born in the state. But citizens who were born outside of Kansas must produce a birth certificate to vote.

The right-to-travel argument is premised on earlier Supreme Court decisions that have found unconstitutional state laws and regulations that favor established residents or impose particular burdens on people who move in from other states.

Kobach has asked Robinson to rule in his favor, arguing that the state verifies whether individuals have a citizenship document on file with Kansas agencies regardless of how long they have lived in the state or their place of birth.