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Press Release

Federal Court Blocks “Proof of Citizenship” Voting Requirement

An official violated federal law when he allowed three states to require proof of citizenship for voting, court rules.

September 21, 2021
Contact: Julian Brookes, Media Contact, brookesj@brennan.law.nyu.edu, 646-292-8376

For Imme­di­ate Release
Septem­ber 23, 2021

Contact
Julian Brookes, Bren­nan Center for Justice, brookes­j@bren­nan.law.nyu.edu, 646–673–6224
Kayla Vix, League of Women Voters,
KVix@lwv.org, 202–809–9668

Last week, a federal court ruled in League of Women Voters v. Harring­ton that a former U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion offi­cial viol­ated federal law in 2016 when he allowed three states – Alabama, Geor­gia, and Kansas – to require docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship on the federal voter regis­tra­tion form, which already requires applic­ants to swear that they are U.S. citizens under penalty of perjury. The League of Women Voters of the United States brought the lawsuit with its Alabama, Geor­gia, and Kansas state leagues, along with other plaintiffs. The League was repres­en­ted by the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU Law and co-coun­sel at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacob­son LLP, and Buchanan Inger­soll & Rooney, PC.

“With National Voter Regis­tra­tion Day fast approach­ing on Septem­ber 28, hundreds of Leagues around the coun­try are prepar­ing to host events to get Amer­ic­ans registered to vote. Today’s decision valid­ates our most vital work of empower­ing voters through regis­tra­tion assist­ance,” said Dr. Deborah Ann Turner, board pres­id­ent of the League of Women Voters of the United States. “This ruling is a major victory that guar­an­tees the right to a simple, access­ible means of regis­ter­ing to vote. As we continue to push Congress to enact voting protec­tions and national voting stand­ards, we applaud the court’s decision today that protects the rights of all voters and rein­forces the fact that voting is the back­bone of our demo­cracy.”

In their lawsuit, plaintiffs argued that the proposed change to the federal voter regis­tra­tion form to require docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship was unau­thor­ized, viol­ates federal law, and would deprive tens of thou­sands of voters of their funda­mental right to vote and under­mine the groups’ efforts to increase civic parti­cip­a­tion. Many Amer­ican citizens don’t have a pass­port or birth certi­fic­atethe most common types of docu­ment used to prove citizen­ship. A 2017 report found that in the first few years after the Kansas require­ment was imple­men­ted in 2013, between 8 and 14 percent of new regis­trants were blocked.

Ruling in Harring­ton (once League of Women Voters v. Newby), Judge Richard J. Leon in the District Court of the District of Columbia found that the actions in 2016 by Brian D. Newby, then the exec­ut­ive director of the U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, were “arbit­rary and capri­cious” viol­a­tions of the Admin­is­trat­ive Proced­ures Act. The judge wrote that Newby didn’t make a determ­in­a­tion that the proposed changes were “neces­sary” to enable the states to assess voter eligib­il­ity before approv­ing the changes, as required by the National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act of 1993.

“This an import­ant victory for voting rights and ensur­ing fair access to the ballot box for all,” said Wendy Weiser, vice pres­id­ent of the Demo­cracy Program at the Bren­nan Center for Justice. “One decision by a single federal agency offi­cial grossly exceed­ing his author­ity had threatened thou­sands of citizens’ abil­ity to register to vote. As this ruling affirms, states can’t add docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship to federal voter regis­tra­tion without getting a reasoned decision from the bipar­tisan Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion that the change is neces­sary to enforce their laws – which is plainly implaus­ible.”

In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a prelim­in­ary injunc­tion in the case that preven­ted the new require­ments from being imple­men­ted while the case was ongo­ing. 

Addi­tional plaintiffs include the Geor­gia State Confer­ence of the NAACP, the Geor­gia Coali­tion for the People’s Agenda, Marvin Brown, and Joann Brown.

The ruling and more inform­a­tion about the case can be found here.

Addi­tional comments from plaintiffs and co-coun­sel:

“The League of Women Voters of Alabama is thrilled with today’s decision that protects the rights of Alabama voters. Citizen­ship proof require­ments dispro­por­tion­ately harm voters of color, elderly voters, women voters, income-sens­it­ive voters, and rural voters. Today’s decision ensures that every Alabama voter has an equal oppor­tun­ity to make their voice heard.” – Kathy Jones, pres­id­ent of the League of Women Voters of Alabama

“Geor­gia voters registered and turned out to vote in record numbers in 2020 and 2021, espe­cially voters of color, because they knew their voices mattered. Proof of citizen­ship require­ments aim to shut out voters of color, but today’s decision valid­ates the right to vote for every Geor­gia voter who showed up in the last elec­tion.” – Susan­nah Scott, pres­id­ent of the League of Women Voters of Geor­gia

“Today Kansas voters are finally freed from one of the worst voter regis­tra­tion restric­tions imposed by former Secret­ary of State Kris Kobach. As we celeb­rate today’s ruling that further ensures Kansans can register to vote without the proof of citizen­ship require­ment, we await another court decision to clarify a simil­arly destruct­ive anti-voter law currently prevent­ing us from doing our mission work to register voters.” – Jacqueline Light­cap, co-pres­id­ent of the League of Women Voters of Kansas

“It has been my honor and priv­ilege over the past decade to repres­ent the League of Women Voters and to co-coun­sel with the Bren­nan Center in this import­ant dispute. The case stands for the propos­i­tion that the funda­mental right to vote cannot be impaired by admin­is­trat­ive fiat, as was done here. The works goes on and Fried Frank looks forward to continu­ing the fight against voter suppres­sion efforts.” – Michael C. Keats, part­ner at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacob­son LLP

About the Bren­nan Center for Justice
The Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpar­tisan law and policy insti­tute that works to reform, revital­ize and — when neces­sary — defend our coun­try’s systems of demo­cracy and justice.

About the League of Women Voters
The League of Women Voters of the United States encour­ages informed and active parti­cip­a­tion in govern­ment, works to increase under­stand­ing of major public policy issues, and influ­ences public policy through educa­tion and advocacy.