Voting rights groups are suing the director of the federal agency that helps states run their elections over his recent controversial move to help a group of red states make voter registration more difficult.
"Voters should not have to face an obstacle course in order to participate in our democracy," said Elisabeth MacNamara, the president of the League of Women Voters, a plaintiff in the suit, which was filed Friday afternoon in federal court.
In late January, the Election Assistance Commission's new executive director, Brian Newby, changed the instructions that accompany the federal voter registration forms for Kansas, Alabama, and Georgia. The new instructions for those states say those registering to vote must provide proof of citizenship. All three states have passed laws to that effect.
The change came after a years-long campaign by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who in the past has had a cozy relationship with Newby, to get the EAC to change the rules. Twice under Newby's predecessor the agency had rejected Kobach's requests, saying that the change would violate federal voting law, which aims to make voter registration as easy as possible. A federal court ruled likewise in 2014.
The lawsuit, which in several places cites MSNBC's reporting on Newby's move, argues that he lacks the authority to make the changes without approval from the EAC's commissioners. Newby acknowledged last week to MSNBC he neither sought nor received such approval, claiming it wasn't required. And the suit says Newby improperly engaged in private communications with Kobach and the secretaries of state of Georgia and Alabama. Newby acknowledged to MSNBC he had done that, too, saying there was nothing improper about it. The lawsuit also cites Newby's claim to MSNBC that he's required to change the state-specific instructions that accompany the federal voter registration form if a state asks him to. Countering that assertion, the suit notes that the federal court held in 2014 “that the EAC is not compulsorily mandated to approve state-requested changes to the Federal Form.”
An EAC spokesman didn't immediately respond to MSNBC's request for comment on the suit.
Dale Ho, the director of the ACLU's voting rights program, which also is involved in the lawsuit, called Newby's move an "abuse of power" that is "unacceptable and illegal."
Thomas Hicks, the sole Democratic commissioner on the EAC, also has said Newby acted "uniaterally" and that his decision “contradicts policy and precedent established by the Commission.”
If the new instructions remain in effect, they could make it harder for tens or even hundreds of thousands of voters in Kansas, Alabama, and Georgia to register to vote in federal elections this fall. Kobach is currently seeking to reject 40,000 voter registration applications in Kansas because they were not accompanied by proof of citizenship.