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Voting Rights Victory: Supreme Court Declines to Hear Voter Registration Case

This makes clear, once and for all, that Kansas and Arizona’s attempt to make it harder to register using our national voter registration form violates federal law.

June 29, 2015

Decision Strikes Down Arizona and Kansas Proof of Citizen­ship Laws for Federal Regis­tra­tion

As voters gear up for the 2016 elec­tion, the U.S. Supreme Court today declined to hear a closely-watched voter regis­tra­tion case — secur­ing a crit­ical victory to strengthen the right to vote in federal elec­tions in Arizona and Kansas and reaf­firm­ing the import­ant role Congress plays in preserving a fair voter regis­tra­tion process across the coun­try.

The Court turned down a peti­tion from Arizona and Kansas to hear Kobach v. United States Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion, thereby letting stand a 10th Circuit ruling that the states may not force applic­ants using the federal voter regis­tra­tion form to show docu­ments prov­ing their citizen­ship when regis­ter­ing to vote in federal races.

Arizona and Kansas sought a ruling that would have required the U.S. Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion (EAC) to change the federal form to allow those states to require docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship in order to register to vote. The Supreme Court’s denial of Kansas and Arizon­a’s peti­tion to hear the case allows the 10th Circuit’s Novem­ber 2014 decision to stand. In that decision, the 10th Circuit ruled that the states could not force the federal govern­ment to require docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship with federal voter regis­tra­tion forms because they did not show that such docu­ment­a­tion — which is not required anywhere else — is neces­sary to enforce voter qual­i­fic­a­tions. Alabama and Geor­gia have passed but not yet imple­men­ted similar laws.  

The ruling is part of the larger voting rights battle that has occurred over the last several years. Since the 2010 elec­tion, 21 states have new laws in place making it harder to vote — in 14 of those states, 2016 will be the first pres­id­en­tial elec­tion with those restric­tions as law. In Kansas, as of last year, almost 24,000 citizens had applied to register to vote but had their regis­tra­tions “suspen­ded” follow­ing the law’s passage because they failed to provide docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship.

The Supreme Court’s denial of the states’ peti­tion follows its 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. That lawsuit was the one the Supreme Court declined to hear today.

The Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the law firms of Kirk­land & Ellis LLP, Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, and Fleeson, Gooing, Coulson & Kitch, LLC repres­en­ted the League of Women Voters — which, along with its Kansas and Arizona affil­i­ates, joined the EAC as defend­ants in the case — arguing the 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, as argued through­out the lawsuit, includ­ing in both the District Court and the 10th Circuit.

“This makes clear, once and for all, that Kansas and Arizon­a’s attempt to make it harder to register using our national voter regis­tra­tion form viol­ates federal law,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Bren­nan Center’s Demo­cracy Program. “It’s time for Kansas and Arizona to stop trying to create hurdles in the voting process and to focus on keep­ing elec­tions free, fair, and access­ible to all.”

“This is an import­ant win for the National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act and an import­ant step forward in making sure that all that are eligible are registered to vote,” said Elisa­beth MacNamara, pres­id­ent of the League of Women Voters of the U.S.

“We are pleased the Supreme Court has preserved this victory for the citizens of Kansas,” said Dolores Furtado of the League of Women Voters of Kansas. “This harsh law has been a barrier to the demo­cratic process.”

“With the 10th Circuit’s decision preserved, we can move forward with our work to advance civic parti­cip­a­tion and register voters,” said Shir­ley Sandelands of the League of Women Voters of Arizona. “Arizona citizens can continue to parti­cip­ate in voter regis­tra­tion drives without worry­ing about not having proof of citizen­ship docu­ments.”

“Congress set the stand­ard for what is required to register using the federal voter regis­tra­tion form, and the 10th Circuit recog­nized that states must abide by that stand­ard,” said Daniel Donovan, a part­ner at Kirk­land & Ellis LLP. “The 10th Circuit’s decision was based on a long line of Supreme Court preced­ent, and we are pleased that the voter regis­tra­tion process remains unim­peded.”

“The Supreme Court previ­ously and clearly told states that they could not impose burden­some require­ments to the federal voter regis­tra­tion form,” said Michael Keats of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. “Arizona and Kansas ignored that message. The Court’s denial of certi­or­ari today reflects that the EAC prop­erly rejec­ted the states’ attempts to make it harder for voters to register as an end in itself. Stroock is honored to repres­ent the League of Women Voters and to co-coun­sel with the Bren­nan Center, Kirk­land & Ellis, and Fleeson.” 

“This case has now made it abund­antly clear that the simple federal voter regis­tra­tion form is valid and avail­able for all citizens in Kansas and Arizona to use,” said David Seely of the Wichita law firm of Fleeson, Gooing, Coulson & Kitch, LLC. “Our firm is proud to repres­ent the League of Women Voters of Kansas, Arizona, and the USA, and to work with our esteemed co-coun­sel in this import­ant case.”