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

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.”