Federal Court Blocks “Proof of Citizenship” Voting Requirement
Last week, a federal court ruled in League of Women Voters v. Harrington that a former U.S. Election Assistance Commission official violated federal law in 2016 when he allowed three states – Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas – to require documentary proof of citizenship on the federal voter registration form, which already requires applicants to swear that they are U.S. citizens under penalty of perjury. The League of Women Voters of the United States brought the lawsuit with its Alabama, Georgia, and Kansas state leagues, along with other plaintiffs. The League was represented by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law and co-counsel at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP, and Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, PC.
“With National Voter Registration Day fast approaching on September 28, hundreds of Leagues around the country are preparing to host events to get Americans registered to vote. Today’s decision validates our most vital work of empowering voters through registration assistance,” said Dr. Deborah Ann Turner, board president of the League of Women Voters of the United States. “This ruling is a major victory that guarantees the right to a simple, accessible means of registering to vote. As we continue to push Congress to enact voting protections and national voting standards, we applaud the court’s decision today that protects the rights of all voters and reinforces the fact that voting is the backbone of our democracy.”
In their lawsuit, plaintiffs argued that the proposed change to the federal voter registration form to require documentary proof of citizenship was unauthorized, violates federal law, and would deprive tens of thousands of voters of their fundamental right to vote and undermine the groups’ efforts to increase civic participation. Many American citizens don’t have a passport or birth certificate – the most common types of document used to prove citizenship. A 2017 report found that in the first few years after the Kansas requirement was implemented in 2013, between 8 and 14 percent of new registrants were blocked.
Ruling in Harrington (once League of Women Voters v. Newby), Judge Richard J. Leon in the District Court of the District of Columbia found that the actions in 2016 by Brian D. Newby, then the executive director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, were “arbitrary and capricious” violations of the Administrative Procedures Act. The judge wrote that Newby didn’t make a determination that the proposed changes were “necessary” to enable the states to assess voter eligibility before approving the changes, as required by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
“This an important victory for voting rights and ensuring fair access to the ballot box for all,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “One decision by a single federal agency official grossly exceeding his authority had threatened thousands of citizens’ ability to register to vote. As this ruling affirms, states can’t add documentary proof of citizenship to federal voter registration without getting a reasoned decision from the bipartisan Election Assistance Commission that the change is necessary to enforce their laws – which is plainly implausible.”
In 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction in the case that prevented the new requirements from being implemented while the case was ongoing. Additional plaintiffs include the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, Marvin Brown, and Joann Brown.
The ruling and more information about the case can be found here.
Additional comments from plaintiffs and co-counsel: “The League of Women Voters of Alabama is thrilled with today’s decision that protects the rights of Alabama voters. Citizenship proof requirements disproportionately harm voters of color, elderly voters, women voters, income-sensitive voters, and rural voters. Today’s decision ensures that every Alabama voter has an equal opportunity to make their voice heard.” – Kathy Jones, president of the League of Women Voters of Alabama “Georgia voters registered and turned out to vote in record numbers in 2020 and 2021, especially voters of color, because they knew their voices mattered. Proof of citizenship requirements aim to shut out voters of color, but today’s decision validates the right to vote for every Georgia voter who showed up in the last election.” – Susannah Scott, president of the League of Women Voters of Georgia
“Today Kansas voters are finally freed from one of the worst voter registration restrictions imposed by former Secretary of State Kris Kobach. As we celebrate today’s ruling that further ensures Kansans can register to vote without the proof of citizenship requirement, we await another court decision to clarify a similarly destructive anti-voter law currently preventing us from doing our mission work to register voters.” – Jacqueline Lightcap, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Kansas
“It has been my honor and privilege over the past decade to represent the League of Women Voters and to co-counsel with the Brennan Center in this important dispute. The case stands for the proposition that the fundamental right to vote cannot be impaired by administrative fiat, as was done here. The works goes on and Fried Frank looks forward to continuing the fight against voter suppression efforts.” – Michael C. Keats, partner at Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP
About the Brennan Center for Justice The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law is a nonpartisan law and policy institute that works to reform, revitalize and — when necessary — defend our country's systems of democracy and justice.
About the League of Women Voters The League of Women Voters of the United States encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy.
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