Arizona is failing to tell people that they can register for federal elections even without proof of citizenship, a new lawsuit alleges, resulting in disenfranchisement for tens of thousands of would-be voters.
At the root of the controversy is a restrictive state law requiring people to show documentary proof of citizenship when they register to vote — the same policy that Kris Kobach, the leader of the White House voting commission, is pushing nationwide.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday by the Campaign Legal Center and civil rights groups, challenges Arizona’s procedure for enforcing its law, which was passed by voters in 2004 amid a wave of anti-immigrant fervor.
In a nutshell, a series of court rulings over the law created the following situation: Arizonans who don’t show proof of citizenship can still register for federal elections, though not state or local ones, as long as they use the federal voter registration form. If they use the state form, their application is rejected entirely.
The lawsuit alleges that those who use the state form aren’t even being informed of the option to use the federal form to register for federal elections. In fact, it says, the state form tells voters that proof of citizenship is “an unqualified requirement.”
Most websites for county elections offices say essentially the same thing, again without mentioning the federal form, the lawsuit adds. Even the notice that the state provides for local election offices to send to voters who didn’t provide proof of citizenship never mentions the federal form.
The result, the complaint alleges, is that “[a]t least 26,000 voters in Maricopa County alone,” and more across the state, “have been disenfranchised.”
The plaintiffs want Arizona to automatically register people for federal elections if their registration forms are otherwise valid.
Separately, the lawsuit also asks that counties be barred from rejecting a state registration form until they’ve tried to use information from the state motor vehicles department to verify citizenship. In most cases, it says, an Arizona driver’s license issued after October 1, 1996 constitutes proof of citizenship, so there’s no reason for the state to require more.
“In 2004 Arizona’s voters passed a requirement for ID at the polls and proof-of-citizenship when registering to vote,” Secretary of State Michele Reagan (pictured), a defendant in the lawsuit, said in a statement provided to The Daily Democracy. “Over the past decade, we’ve successfully elected 3 presidents, 3 governors, 4 US Senators, 51 members of the US House of Representatives and 540 members of the Arizona Legislature under this law – with no complaints. So it’s puzzling to understand why this lawsuit is being filed now. I think voters still want the state to verify eligibility to vote so that we can ensure election integrity and discourage fraud.”
In 2011, Kansas passed a proof of citizenship law similar to Arizona’s, an effort led by Kobach, who serves as Kansas secretary of state. In response to a court ruling, Kobach too set up a two-tiered voter registration system. But a court last year permanently blocked the move, ruling that Kobach lacked the authority to create the system. Other court decisions have punched more holes in the law, though it’s still on the books.
Kobach also is working to take the proof of citizenship policy national. After last year’s election, he drew up a proposal for changing federal voting law to make it easier for states to require proof of citizenship, and circulated the proposal to top Trump aides. And he has said he’s spoken with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) about introducing legislation along those lines.