Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach on Thursday defended the state’s requirement that would-be voters who register at driver’s license offices must provide proof of their citizenship.
His statements came in federal court during oral arguments in a lawsuit challenging the proof-of-citizenship requirement.
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Six people and the League of Women Voters of Kansas have sued Kobach and other state officials, saying the requirement illegally disenfranchises thousands of voters who register at DMV offices under the federal “motor-voter” law.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs, has asked U.S. District Judge Julie Robinson to immediately order the state to stop the requirement.
But Kobach told the court in Kansas City, Kan., that the state was well within its rights when it enacted a proof-of-citizenship requirement for first-time registrants using the motor-voter law. A ballot cast by a non-citizen “effectively cancels out the vote of a U.S. citizen,” he said. “The only way to stop it is on the front end.”
Dale Ho, the lawyer for the six would-be voters, argued federal law prohibits the paperwork requirement. Instead, he said, motor-voter registrants need only attest to their citizenship by checking a box in order to vote in federal elections.
He said the Kansas law blocks thousands of residents from voting because people may not possess the necessary documents or may face other hurdles. An estimated 11,000 registrants have had their applications canceled, and another 5,000 have had the requests “suspended,” Ho said, because of a failure to meet the requirements.
“The integrity of the process is threatened when 16,000 people are prevented from voting,” he told the court.
Robinson questioned both sides closely during the four-hour hearing in federal court. But she seemed most skeptical of Kobach’s claim that motor-voter registrants can easily meet the state’s paperwork requirements. In some cases, he told the judge, a phone call to state officials can clarify citizenship.
Robinson said it still sounded complicated. “It seems like a lot of work to the population I’m talking about here,” she told Kobach. “This is supposed to be a simple process.”
She referred to “institutional hurdles” that have deterred voters in other states. The United States, she said, has a “tragic history of denying people … the right to vote.”
The plaintiffs in the case have asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction prohibiting the paperwork requirement for motor-voter registrants. If granted, it would only apply to registrants who seek to cast ballots in federal elections like the U.S. Congress and president.
Kansas could still require the paperwork from motor-voter registrants who want to cast ballots in state elections.
Kobach said an injunction would be over-broad and complicated to carry out.
But Ho, who works for the ACLU, blamed those complications on Kobach and state lawmakers, not the lawsuit.
“This system, which is admittedly very complicated, is the problem of the Secretary’s own making,” he told reporters after the hearing. “If the Secretary would simply register people to vote in accordance with federal law in the same way that it’s done around the country … we wouldn’t have this problem at all.”
Kobach said Kansas lawmakers have the right to insist on citizenship proof for voters. “It’s not a problem at all,” he said. “It’s a decision the people of Kansas created through their legislature.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs have asked the judge to make the case a class-action lawsuit so that other voters will be protected when the case is heard. That request is pending.
Robinson’s decision on the request for a preliminary injunction is expected in late spring or early summer, and can be appealed. A hearing on the overall case would likely come later in the year.