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The lengthy battle over proof-of-citizenship for voter registration – roiled recently by EAC Executive Director Brian Newby’s decision to add proof-of-citizenship language to the federal registration form – has taken yet another turn as a coalition of groups has come together to file suit against him and the agency to roll back the changes. The Associated Press has more:
A coalition of voting rights groups on Friday sued a federal elections official who decided that residents of Alabama, Kansas and Georgia can no longer register to vote using a national form without providing proof of U.S. citizenship.
The 224-page complaint filed in federal court, also named in the suit the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC). It was brought by the League of Women Voters, Project Vote, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and others.
Their complaint contends the action by executive director Brian Newby will hurt voter registration drives and deprive eligible voters of the right to vote in the presidential primary elections. It seeks a court order immediately blocking the changes to the federal voter registration form.
“Voters should not have to face an obstacle course to participate and vote,” Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, said in a news release.
The key issue in the case is whether or not Newby exceeded his authority in making the changes to the form:
Newby, who took the job in November, has said he was within his authority and believed he did not have the discretion to decide which state instructions were OK and which were not.
Newby sent letters dated Jan. 29 to the three states that had requested the change, and the new instructions were immediately posted on the agency’s website. Under the new rules, any resident in those states who registers to vote using the federal form must show citizenship documentation — such as a birth certificate, naturalization papers or passport. In other states, no such documentation is needed to register. Voters need only sign a sworn statement.
“This change was unauthorized and illegal, and is hugely detrimental to voters in Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy program which is representing the League in the lawsuit. “With presidential primaries fast approaching, these citizens deserve clarity on how —or if — they can register to vote.”
Earlier this month, EAC Commissioner Thomas Hicks, a Democrat, posted a blistering statement on the agency’s website saying Newby’s action constitutes a policy change that should have been taken up by the commission.
A release from the plaintiffs lays out the case in greater detail:
Documentary proof of citizenship requirements undermine the groups’ efforts to increase civic participation and make it more difficult for individuals to vote, according to the court filing.
“This change was unauthorized and illegal, and is hugely detrimental to voters in Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy program and representation for the Leagues in this case. “With presidential primaries fast approaching, these citizens deserve clarity on how — or if — they can register to vote. This will bring unneeded confusion and uncertainty during this presidential election year…”
“Documentary proof of citizenship requirements have caused havoc for Kansas elections,” said Marge Ahrens, co-president of the Kansas League. “Already, the League is scrambling to help the tens of thousands of eligible Kansans caught up in this ill-advised regulation, and complicating the federal form in this manner will make the problem even worse.” [For his part, Kansas’ SoS has said he will begin enforcing proof-of-citizenship immediately – ed.]
“Making eligible Alabamians show citizenship documents when registering to vote would seriously undercut our efforts to sign up voters,” said Anne Permaloff, president of the Alabama League. “Such an abrupt change would also interfere with our efforts to educate the electorate on how to navigate existing obstacles to voting, which are already significant.”
“We are concerned this change will further complicate what should be a straightforward process,” said Elizabeth Poythress, president of the Georgia League. “This additional burden on the voter registration process is unnecessary, unreasonable, and could effectively deny the right to vote to thousands of Georgia citizens who are otherwise eligible and entitled by law to vote.”
“We have successfully litigated two cases where we defeated attempts to require unnecessary and burdensome proof of citizenship for Federal Form applicants,” stated Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “We expect to prevail a third time in this case.” [emphasis added]
The timing of this case will be tricky with upcoming primaries – Alabama and Georgia will be a part of the so-called “SEC Primary” on March 1 and Kansas voters will caucus on March 5. The 224-page complaint in the case seeks 1) an injunction against enforcement of the proof-of-citizenship requirements and 2) an order (“vacatur”) rescinding the letters to the three states. The full complaint can be found here.
Needless to say, this case is a big deal – not just on the question of proof-of-citizenship but also the policymaking relationship between the EAC Commissioners and their staff. It will certainly make news this cycle but could have an impact for many years to come.
Stay tuned …