Federal Court Blocks Burdensome Registration Requirements

September 12, 2016

After an initial victory late Friday night, arguments continue today in U.S. District Court over whether voters in Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas should be required to provide proof-of-citizenship documents, such as birth certificates or passports, when signing up using the federal voter registration form.

The hearing comes on the heels of a decision Friday night by the D.C. Circuit Court to block the requirements for voters until the suit is decided. Today, U.S. District Judge Richard Leon will weigh whether to permanently block the requirements.

With the provisions blocked, there are now 14 states with new voting restrictions in place for the first time in a presidential election in 2016, according to a Brennan Center analysis.

The suit, which is on behalf of the League of Women Voters of the United States, along with its Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas affiliates and other plaintiffs, was filed in February by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, with co-counsel Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP and Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and other legal organizations.

In January 2016, U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s (EAC) Executive Director Brian D. Newby announced that documentary proof of citizenship would be added to the federal registration form instructions for Kansas, Alabama, and Georgia. Newby did not have authority to allow the states to enforce these requirements, and doing so violated both EAC policy and federal law, according to the plaintiffs.

Research shows 7 percent of voters do not have documentary proof of citizenship, and in Kansas tens of thousands of citizens have been blocked from registering to vote in the state.

“With just weeks to go before a critical presidential election, we are grateful to the court of appeals for stopping this thinly veiled discrimination in its tracks,” said Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States. “We should be making voting easier, not harder. All eligible Americans deserve the opportunity to register and vote without obstacles. With this ruling, League volunteers will be able to get back to what we do best: helping voters get registered and ready for Election Day.”

"The appeals court decision means tens of thousands of eligible citizens in Kansas, Georgia, and Alabama who do not have passports or birth certificates can still register to vote in the upcoming federal elections,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and representation for the Leagues. “Hopefully this will put an end to shenanigans in the much-needed federal agency charged with helping to improve our elections. We urge Judge Leon to make the decision permanent.”

"We are gratified that these illegal and illegitimate voter registration restrictions will not be in place this election, said Michael Keats of Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, which also represents the Leagues. “The Court of Appeals agreed that the League and voters face irreparable harm and that we have shown a substantial likelihood of success on the merits.  We look forward to addressing the final merits before the District Court.”

“We are grateful to see this ill-advised and burdensome regulation has been reversed,” said Dolores Furtado, past president of the Kansas League. “We are looking forward to assisting eligible Kansans with registration efforts throughout this election cycle.”

“We are pleased to see the D.C. Circuit grant this motion” said Anne Permaloff, president of the League of Women Voters of Alabama. “This decision helps the Alabama League continue our efforts to educate and register Alabamians, without the threat of additional proof of citizenship restrictions.”

"This ruling will help prevent an additional unnecessary burden for voters in Georgia," said Elizabeth Poythress, President of the League of Women Voters of Georgia.  "In order to provide consistent and accurate processing of the federal forms, we are calling on the Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, to immediately issue a directive to all 159 county election offices stating that the Federal Voter Registration forms must be accepted and processed without documentary proof of citizenship."

The Brennan Center is joined in its complaint by other counsel and groups. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, American Civil Liberties Union, and pro bono counsel Steptoe & Johnson LLP represent the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda. The Lawyers’ Committee and ACLU also represent Marvin and JoAnn Brown. Project Vote joins in the lawsuit representing itself and with pro bono counsel Arnold & Porter LLP.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Arizona could not require documentary proof of citizenship on the federal registration form without EAC approval. Kansas implemented a law similar to Arizona’s the same year, and both states put proof-of-citizenship requirements into effect for voters using their state forms. The EAC and a federal court subsequently ruled it invalid for the federal form.

Alabama and Georgia, which passed similar provisions in 2011 and 2009, respectively, had not implemented their laws. Last June, the Supreme Court also turned down a petition from Arizona and Kansas to hear Kobach v. United States Election Assistance Commission, thereby letting stand a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld an EAC determination that Arizona and Kansas may not force applicants using the federal voter registration form to show documents.

Read more background on the case here.

For further background on the lawsuit, visit the Brennan Center’s case page