Voting rights watch: KS and AZ want to move voter suppression upstream

For many years, the federal voter-registration form used in virtually all states has required that the person filling it out swear that he/she is a citizen, under penalty of perjury. But apparently, that’s not enough for Kansas and Arizona. Those two states have filed a suit in federal court to allow them to require proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate, to register to vote.

Is that a big deal? Yes, it is. It’s a lot like requiring proof of identity at the polling place—via a birth certificate, passport or other government-issued ID: a deliberate obstacle to voting, especially for minorities, poor people and the elderly. It may even be worse than the voter ID ploy, because it takes the disenfranchisement gambit further back in the process—making it even harder even to register to vote. Apparently, the cynical quest to prevent politically “undesirable” people from voting against you has been moved upstream—under the fraudulent guise of preventing voter fraud by non-citizens.

The lawsuit comes as a response to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that knocked down a proof-of-citizenship law passed in Arizona in 2004. Kansas’ more recent proof-of-citizenship requirement for new voters took effect on Jan. 1, 2013.

Here’s the background, according to Daily Kos:

The suit stems from a 7-2 Supreme Court decision in the case of Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. The ruling affirmed that a provision of the National Voting Rights Act of 1993 requires states to “accept and use” a specific federal form for voter registration. That form requires individuals to state they are a citizen and at least 18 years old. But it does not require proof of citizenship. In 2004, Arizona voters approved a law that does require that proof before anyone can register.

The law was challenged on the grounds that federal law overrides state law because of the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. The Supreme Court affirmed that judgment, noting that not only the Supremacy Clause but the Elections Clause trumps state law. In other words, federal elections law will always supersede state elections laws.

Unfortunately, the majority opinion in the Supreme Court—written by arch-conservative Antonin Scalia—left a window slightly open:

The Court also ruled that states could ask the federal Election Assistance Commission to add a proof of citizenship requirement to the form. And that if the EAC refused, they could bring suit against it.

So, Arizona and Kansas jumped right in.

The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the proof-of-citizenship requirement. The ACLU says that the citizenship declaration that new voters sign at the bottom of the federal registration form  “has been acceptable for scores of years, and there is no problem of voter-citizenship fraud.” According to the ACLU, there is no evidence that non-citizens are falsely signing those citizenship declarations.

Another problem: The federal Election Assistance Commission currently doesn’t have any commissioners, and there’s a bill working its way through the Republican-dominated House of Representatives to eliminate the commission entirely.

In the meantime, about 12,000 registrations in Kansas are in limbo, because the proof-of-citizenship process hasn’t been completed.

Until the litigation is resolved, Kansas’ Secretary of State Kris Kobach said there will be two groups of voters in Kansas who have registered to vote since Jan. 1 — those who have documented proof of citizenship will be able to vote in all elections, and those who haven’t will be allowed to vote only in federal elections.

Since when does a state official get to make that decision?

We need state officials to concentrate more on actually governing and addressing the needs of the people they’re supposed to be serving, rather than focusing on bogus issues meant to demonstrate their conservative bona fides, fire up the base, suppress opposition voters, and keep themselves in office.