Not All Voters Equal as States Move to Two-Tier Ballots
Arizona and Kansas, where top state posts come up for grabs next year, are creating two-tiered voting systems to bar some residents from casting ballots in all but congressional races unless they prove they’re U.S. citizens.
The dual methods are in response to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June that bars Arizona from rejecting federal voter-registration forms that don’t include proof of citizenship, which is required by both states. To comply, both plan to provide those voters with ballots listing just federal races.
“It is quite likely going to disenfranchise a number of voters,” said Julie Ebenstein, a lawyer with the Voting Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York. “It is going to cause a lot of expense to county election officials and confusion.”
State officials say they have little choice: the high court didn’t invalidate the statutes that require proof of citizenship to vote in state and local races. Critics say the mandates are designed to impede ballot access for minorities, the poor and older residents who may not have the needed documentation, such as a passport or a birth certificate.
“It’s a little bit of a mess for election officials,” said Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett. “We found ourselves in the middle of these two things.”
Supporters of the proof-of-citizenship requirements, passed by ballot initiative in Arizona in 2004 and by Kansas lawmakers in 2011, say they’re needed to ensure that noncitizens don’t participate in elections. On the federal form, created as part of the so-called “Motor Voter Law” intended to make registration easier, applicants swear that they are citizens, under penalty of perjury.
The state measures reflect larger battles over ballot access and the role of states in combating illegal immigration. In the months leading up to last year’s presidential election, Republicans pushed new laws requiring voters to present identification at the polls and other measures they said were needed to prevent fraud. Democrats cried foul, charging that the laws sought to suppress participation by those likely to favor their candidates, such as young people and Latinos.
Kay Curtis, spokeswoman for Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, said her state’s requirements aren’t set up to prevent voting by anyone who is eligible. Kobach, a Republican, is credited with helping Arizona lawmakers draft a 2010 immigration law that was mostly struck down by the Supreme Court in 2012.
“The law applies to every Kansan equally,” she said.
More than 18,000 Kansas residents who have tried to register to vote since January haven’t been accepted because they didn’t provide proof of citizenship, Curtis said. Most of those used state forms and are Republicans. She said some later told county officials that they weren’t U.S. citizens.
Kobach’s office issued guidance in July to county election offices on how to implement the two-tiered balloting method for those who registered to vote using the federal form.
Kansas state Representative Jim Ward, a Democrat from Wichita, said he believes the dual-ballot method is a further attempt by Kobach to suppress voter turnout and secure his own political future.
“I think it is reprehensible,” said Ward, who’s exploring whether creating the system should have gone through the legislature. He predicted “chaos” at the polls. “It’s un-American, it’s undemocratic and there is no rational basis for it.”
Taking another tack in response to the court ruling, both states sued the U.S. Election Assistance Commission on Aug. 21, seeking to compel the agency to include state proof-of-citizenship requirements on the federal voter-registration form. While the agency has denied such requests, the Supreme Court said the states could seek judicial review of those decisions.
In Arizona, Bennett sought advice from fellow Republican, Attorney General Tom Horne following the high court ruling. Horne issued an opinion Oct. 7 instructing election officials to create two separate voter registration rolls, one for those who proved their citizenship and one for those who didn’t.
In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, about 900 people are expected to get federal-only ballots, said County Recorder Helen Purcell. While almost 30,000 people have used the federal form to register in the past several years, most of those provided a driver’s license number or some other proof of citizenship that county officials verified, she said.
The additional ballots will cost the county between $225,000 and $250,000, according to estimates from her office. Affected voters will be urged to provide the documentation that will let them cast ballots in state and local elections, too.
“I hope we can do enough with a letter and education to reach out to these people,” Purcell said. “I don’t want to see anyone disenfranchised.”
Advocacy groups seeking to register new college students and Latino voters in Arizona often use the federal form because it is much simpler, said Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network in Phoenix. The nonprofit group works to increase civic participation among underrepresented constituencies.
“They are trying to circumvent our victory before the U.S. Supreme Court,” Wercinski, whose group was among those that challenged the Arizona law, said of Republicans and others who support the statute and the dual-ballot system.
“They are trying to cause confusion and discourage people from using the federal form, because they want to make it more difficult to register to vote,” he said. “They want low turnout so they can retain power.”
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