Late last month, the executive director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), Brian Newby, acting unilaterally, approved requests from Alabama, Georgia and Kansas to require documentary proof-of-citizenship when a registrant uses the federal mail voter registration form created by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Within weeks, the League, alongside its Alabama, Georgia and Kansas affiliates, filed a federal lawsuit to prevent these states from requiring documentary proof-of-citizenship when registering voters using this form.
Our suit is based around the requirement that the full Election Assistance Commission must vote on any changes to the federal form as the Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires. On Tuesday, a federal judge rejected our request for a temporary restraining order to immediately prevent this requirement. While we are disappointed by this decision, it was only the first step: protecting the rights of voters – all voters – can be a long process and the League is not going to stop now. The next hearing on this case will be on March 9.
The EAC has now been asked to weigh in on similar documentary proof-of-citizenship requirements five times, including this most recent request. Previously, the EAC had rejected such requests. Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down a petition last June to hear a case that would have challenged the EAC’s decision that Arizona and Kansas could not require registrants using the federal voter registration form to show documentary proof-of-citizenship. In fact, just three years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., that Arizona’s then-requirement that voter registrants provide documentary proof-of-citizenship was preempted by the National Voter Registration Act when using the federal voter registration form.
In that decision, Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for majority, explained that “[t]he Federal Form provides a backstop: No matter what procedural hurdles a State’s own form imposes, the Federal Form guarantees that a simple means of registering to vote in federal elections will be available no matter what procedural hurdles a State’s own form imposes.”
It then follows that unnecessary and confusing restrictions on voter registration, such as documentary proof-of-citizenship, make it much more difficult for eligible citizens to register to vote. Many people, including those who change their names, simply don’t have easy access to documentary proof-of-citizenship. When registering to vote using the federal form, registrants affirm their citizenship under the penalty of law.
Sadly, the fight to protect voters' rights has never been easy. As we learned during the period of Jim Crow, the right to vote can be curtailed by erecting many procedural steps, and every restriction, every barrier adds up, until whole groups of Americans can’t vote.
The League has worked tirelessly to remove barriers from voting and to advocate on behalf of the voting rights of all Americans. Defending voters’ rights is arduous, but we are determined to shine a light on and defeat each and every barrier thrown in the way of eligible voters.