IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Green light for states to demand proof of citizenship in voting

A new court ruling making it easier for states to require citizenship proof from people registering to vote could seriously hamper voter registration efforts.
A poll worker posts signs at a polling station, Feb. 28, 2012, in Phoenix, Ariz.
A poll worker posts signs at a polling station, Feb. 28, 2012, in Phoenix, Ariz.

In a blow to voting rights, a federal judge has ruled that the federal government must help Kansas and Arizona to require that people registering to vote show proof of citizenship.

If allowed to stand, the ruling could make it much harder to register new voters, not just in those two places but in other Republican-led states that may now impose similar rules.

Judge Eric Melgren, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled Wednesday that the Election Assistance Commission must update its national voter registration form by adding state-specific instructions for Arizona and Kansas requiring documentary proof of citizenship.

"There’s been a media cover-up of the seriousness of voter fraud in Arizona,” the state’s Republican attorney general, Tom Horne, said in a statement celebrating the ruling. “Today’s decision is an important victory for the people of Arizona against the Obama Administration, assuring that only Arizona residents and not illegals, vote in Arizona elections."

The federal registration form requires users to check a box affirming, on penalty of perjury, that they're citizens. But in 2004, Arizona had passed a law requiring people to show proof of citizenship when registering. It was struck down by the Supreme Court last year as it applies to federal elections. But in the same ruling, Justice Antonin Scalia suggested that states could require proof of citizenship in state and local elections.

Wednesday's decision could significantly hamper voter registration efforts, which often focus on low-income and minority areas. Many members of those communities can’t easily provide a birth certificate or passport. And they’re even less likely to be carrying such documentation at the moment when they happen to be registering—at the DMV, for instance, or when encountering a volunteer registration worker in a public place.

Some experts are predicting that the ruling will lead other Republican-led states to follow Arizona and Kansas’s lead. “The upshot of this opinion, if it stands on appeal, is that states with Republican legislatures and/or Republican chief election officials are likely to require documentary proof of citizenship for voting, making it harder for Democrats to pursue a relatively simple method of voter registration,” wrote Rick Hasen, an election law scholar at the University of California, Irvine.

The ruling comes at an opportune time for Republicans: Aggressive voter registration efforts aimed at bringing new and previously marginalized voters into the process are an increasingly central part of Democratic and progressive strategies.

Battleground Texas, a group of Obama campaign veterans, is working to register millions of new voters in Texas as part of an effort to turn that state blue. North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement is planning a major voter registration drive this summer, as part of a campaign to push back against that state’s restrictive voting law and broader hard-right shift enacted since last year. And last month, the Democratic National Committee announced a major new effort to increase access to the polls, of which voter registration will be a central part.