Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Judge Julie A. Robinson (D. Kansas) granted a preliminary injunction and halted Kansas's requirement that motor-voter applicants provide proof of citizenship when they register to vote (along with their driver's license application) in federal elections.
The ruling halts Kansas Secretary of State Chris Kobach's latest effort to restrict voter registration in that state. It also requires the state to register about 18,000 voters whose registrations were cancelled or put on hold for failure to provide proof of citizenship. At the same time, it allows the state to use a proof-of-citizenship requirement for registration for state elections. Kobach will appeal.
The Kansas law requires applicants for a driver's license and for voter registration to submit proof of citizenship. But the National Voter Registration Act, Section 5, says that every application for a driver's license "shall serve as an application for voter registration with respect to elections for Federal office." It goes on to say that a state "may require only the minimum amount of information necessary to . . . enable State election officials to assess the eligibility of that applicant and to administer voter registration and other parts of the election process."
Judge Robinson focused on the "minimum amount" language and ruled that Kansas's requirement didn't meet it. In particular, she said that the evidence didn't support that Kansas needed proof of citizenship, because the registration form already required an applicant to attest to citizenship and to sign the form. She said that the attestation requirement was plenty sufficient for the state to ensure that an applicant was qualified. (She noted that there wasn't really a problem with noncitizens registering, anyway, and that the proof-of-citizenship requirement was applied in a pretty sloppily.)
Judge Robinson rejected the state's argument that this would lead to two different registration forms--one for state elections (which would require proof of citizenship) and another for federal elections (which would not). She said that this wouldn't result in two different sets of electors, just two different sets of requirements that would lead to the same result. And in any event it was a problem of the state's own creation.
The upshot is that Judge Robinson held that the NVRA preempted Kansas's proof-of-citizenship requirement under the Elections Clause and temporarily enjoined enforcement of the proof-of-citizenship requirement for motor-voter applicants for federal elections.
If the case sounds familiar, that's because it is--or almost is. The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona that the state couldn't require proof of citizenship for the federal mail-in form for the same reason: the NVRA preempted state law under the Elections Clause. The NVRA provision in that case--for the mail-in registration option, not the motor-voter option--was different than the provision in this case, so Arizona didn't direct the result here. Still, the NVRA provision at issue here--the "minimum amount" language--led to the same outcome.