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Judge to hear arguments in voter citizenship suit

12/13/2013

By ROXANA HEGEMAN

Associated Press

WICHITA -- A federal judge will hear arguments Friday in the lawsuit filed by Kansas and Arizona requesting the national voter registration form be changed so that the two states can fully enforce proof-of-citizenship requirements for new voters ahead of the 2014 midterm elections.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and Arizona counterpart Ken Bennett want the federal court to order the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to include instructions on the federal form that would require Kansas and Arizona residents to provide a birth certificate, passport or other proof of U.S. citizenship when registering to vote.

Kobach has pushed the proof-of-citizenship policy as a way to prevent non-citizens -- particularly immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission -- from registering and possibly voting.

The U.S. Justice Department, which is representing the election commission, has argued that changing the requirements on the federal form for residents of Kansas and Arizona would in essence affect nationwide policy because it might encourage every state to seek increased proof of citizenship in order to register for federal elections. The current federal registration form requires only that someone sign a statement that he or she is a U.S. citizen.

The lawsuit, to be heard by U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren in Wichita, was sparked by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that found Arizona could not refuse to accept the national voter registration form, even though people who use it aren't required to provide citizenship documents. Arizona instituted its proof-of-citizenship law in 2004.

Kansas and Arizona contend that unless their state-specific requirements are added to the federal form, they would be forced to institute a costly and cumbersome "bifurcated voter registration system" in order to enforce their more stringent registration laws. Under a dual registration system, people who use the state form and comply with the proof-of-citizenship rule could vote in any race on the ballot. But people who use the federal forms and don't submit citizenship papers would be eligible to vote only in presidential, U.S. Senate and congressional races.

The Justice Department says changing the federal requirements would place an additional obstacle in the way of eligible citizens seeking to vote in federal elections and interfere with the federal election system, the balance of interests in the National Voter Registration Act and the balance of power between Congress and the states established in the U.S. Constitution.

Melgren was a member of the conservative Federalist Society before being appointed to the federal judgeship by President George W. Bush in 2008. His appointments as a federal judge and previously as the U.S. attorney for Kansas were both championed by then-U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, the Republican now serving as Kansas governor. Melgren worked as a legislative assistant for Brownback in 1995.

The two states have asked Melgren to also treat their request for the preliminary injunction as a motion for summary judgment, meaning he could potentially rule on the merits of the case. The Justice Department has argued that the election commission has not issued a final administrative ruling on the state-specific requests, thus giving Melgren the option of simply sending the whole issue back to the commission to handle administratively.

The case has drawn strong criticism from groups who say the proof-of-citizenship law would suppress voter turnout.

On Thursday, Magistrate Judge David Waxse granted the requests to intervene in the case filed by numerous advocacy and minority rights groups, including the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, League of United Latin American Citizens Arizona and League of Women Voters of the United States.