Court Strikes Down Kansas and Arizona Proof of Citizenship Laws for Federal Races

November 7, 2014

A federal appellate court ruled today that Kansas and Arizona may not force applicants using the federal voter registration form to show documents proving their citizenship when registering to vote in federal races.

The decision overturned a district court’s ruling that would have required the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to change the federal form to allow Kansas and Arizona to require documentary proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. The district court’s order had previously been stayed pending appeal. The court found Kansas and Arizona “failed” to show their documentary proof of citizenship requirement was needed to enforce their voter qualifications. It also made clear the federal voter registration form “can only be modified by the federal government, not directly by states.

The ruling comes after an election in which many Americans faced new voting restrictions for the first time. Arizona and Kansas were two of seven states with major lawsuits challenging restrictions ahead of the 2014 election. Since the 2010 election, new restrictions were put in place in 21 states, 14 for the first time this year. In Kansas, almost 24,000 citizens applied to register to vote but had their registrations “suspended” this year because they failed to provide documentary proof of citizenship.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School and the law firms of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Fleeson, Gooing, Coulson & Kitch, LLC represented the League of Women Voters — which, along with its Kansas and Arizona affiliates, joined the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) as defendants in the case — arguing the new laws in Kansas and Arizona requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote violated federal law.

The League of Women Voters operates one of the longest-running nonpartisan voter registration efforts in the nation. Kansas and Arizona’s strict proof of citizenship laws harmed voter registration drives and undermined congressional efforts to provide access to the ballot in federal elections, argued a brief submitted by the League and other civic organizations.

“Today’s decision strengthens the right to vote in federal elections in Arizona and Kansas and reaffirms the important role Congress plays in preserving a fair voter registration process across the country,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “Last year, the Supreme Court invalidated Arizona’s law and decisively confirmed Congress’s authority to protect the right to vote in federal elections. Today’s decision ensures these two states cannot undermine that authority, and stops an attempt by politicians to manipulate the voting rules for their own gain."

“Laws that unnecessarily make it harder for eligible voters to register have no place in our country,” said Elisabeth MacNamara, national League President. “Voters should not have to face an obstacle course to participate in our democracy. The ruling today allows nonpartisan civic groups like the League to continue doing our job, to advocate for Americans’ voting rights and register eligible voters.”

“The ruling allows for the continuation of civic participation and our efforts to register voters,” said Robyn Prud’homme-Bauer of the League of Women Voters of Arizona. “Citizens of Arizona can now actively participate in voter registration drives without worrying about not having proof of citizenship documents.”

“Today is a victory for the citizens of Kansas and the democratic process,” said Dolores Furtado, President of the League of Women Voters of Kansas. “We are pleased the Court has eased the burden of this harsh law.”

“Kirkland & Ellis is honored to have been part of the team that has defeated these superfluous and entirely pointless requirements — requirements that could have endangered participatory democracy by substantially interfering with the right to vote, particularly among the poor, minorities, and other traditionally disenfranchised communities,” said Michael Keats of Kirkland & Ellis, who also represents the Leagues.

“Our firm is pleased to have been able to assist the national, Kansas, and Arizona chapters of the League of Women Voters in this landmark victory for voting rights advocates,” said David G. Seely of Fleeson, Gooing, Coulson & Kitch.

This case follows the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2013 ruling in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., which invalidated Arizona’s law requiring documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote, as it applied to the federal registration form. The Court found the law violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, a statute that was well within Congress’s broad powers to regulate federal elections. Kansas and Arizona then sought to force the EAC to change the federal form to allow those states to require documentary proof as part of the voter registration process.

While this case was in process, Kansas and Arizona moved ahead with a two-tiered system with different sets of voter registration lists for state and federal elections. Under these rules, voters who registered with documentary proof of citizenship on state forms were eligible to vote for the complete ballot — including ballot initiatives, and state and local candidates at every level. But voters who registered using the federal form and did not provide citizenship documents could only receive ballots for federal candidates. This two-tiered voter registration system is being challenged in a separate suit.