Arizona and Kansas can require proof of U.S. citizenship for voter registration, a federal judge said in a loss for the Obama administration and minority-rights advocates.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission exceeded its authority under the law by rejecting Arizona and Kansas’s bid to add a proof-of-citizenship requirement on the state-specific instructions of the federal mail voter registration form, U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren in Topeka, Kansas, said in a ruling yesterday.
The lawsuit over the citizenship requirement followed dozens of courtroom battles ahead of the 2012 presidential election over voter-identification requirements passed by Republican-dominated legislatures since President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. Supporters of the laws say they’re needed to prevent voter fraud. Opponents contend the measures are aimed at suppressing the votes of low-income people and the elderly who may be more inclined to vote for Democrats.
“Congress has not preempted state laws requiring proof of citizenship,” wrote Melgren, who was appointed to the court by former President George W. Bush, a Republican.
The states sued in August, two months after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Arizona’s law on proof of citizenship, saying states can’t bypass a federal statute that sets registration requirements.
Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the opinion, suggested that Arizona could pursue a different avenue for requiring proof of citizenship. Under the federal law, states may ask the Elections Assistance Commission, the agency that developed the federal form, to require additional documentation.
Current law requires only that those registering by mail with the standard federal form swear they’re American citizens, according to the states’ complaint.
“Today’s decision is an important victory for the people of Arizona against the Obama Administration, assuring that only Arizona residents and not illegals, vote in Arizona elections,” Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, a Republican, said yesterday in a statement.
The Obama administration had contended that the 1993 National Voter Registration Act was designed to streamline the registration process and that the Arizona law would undermine that goal. The Arizona law, the product of a 2004 ballot initiative, was challenged by groups including the League of Women Voters of Arizona.
Elisabeth MacNamara, national president of the League of Women Voters, said in a telephone interview that the judge had got it wrong and that the National Voter Registration Act prevents states from creating additional hurdles for would-be voters.
“It’s a very complex issue and the judge has made it more complex by splitting legal hairs to arrive at the conclusion he wanted to reach,” MacNamara said.
The Arizona and Kansas requirement disproportionately harms young and elderly people by making it unnecessarily burdensome to sign up to vote, according to MacNamara, whose organization is involved in voter registration and supported the 1993 federal law that made it easier to register.
Representatives of the Justice Department, which represented the Election Assistance Commission in the case, didn’t immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment on the ruling.
The case is Kobach v. U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 13-cv-04095, U.S. District Court, District of Kansas (Topeka).
To contact the reporters on this story: Edvard Pettersson in Federal court in Los Angeles at