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Federal Judge Rules Kansas Can’t Make Voters Show Citizenship Papers To Register

KCUR 89.3
Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is pledging to continue his defense of the proof-of-citizenship requirement for voter registration.

Kansas will no longer be allowed to block people from registering to vote if they don’t provide documents such as birth certificates or passports to prove their citizenship.

On Monday, a federal judge ruled that doing so violates the U.S. Constitution and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act.

Read the complete ruling

“It's a 100 percent win,” said Mark Johnson, a Kansas City attorney who represented one of the plaintiffs, Parker Bednasek. “We got everything we asked for. Can't say that very often.”

The requirement that would-be voters show more documentation was part of a 2011 law championed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kobach announced through a spokeswoman Monday night that he will appeal Chief District Judge Julie Robinson’s ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“Her ruling is unlikely to survive on appeal,” spokeswoman Danedri Herbert wrote in an email. “Her conclusion is incorrect, and it is inconsistent with precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

The email called Robinson’s conclusion “extreme” and the first of its kind.

But Johnson and plaintiff lawyers with the ACLU disagree, and are confident the decision will stand.

“Tens of thousands of Kansans whose registrations were blocked under this law will be able to vote in the 2018 election,” ACLU attorney Dale Ho said. “And I think anyone who cares about our democracy should be happy about that.”

The decision means Kobach needs to make sure voters who haven't provided citizenship documents have been informed they can vote. His office will also need to ensure county election officials know the law was struck down and that election websites are updated to reflect it. 

Under the National Voter Registration Act, voter applicants swear their citizenship under penalty of perjury, which comes with potential prison, fines and deportation.

Kansas is one of just two states that has required documentary proof of citizenship. The other is Arizona.

Alabama and Georgia havesimilar laws on the books but have not been implementing them, and Kobach, who led President Donald Trump’s now defunct election integrity commission, had wanted the White House and Congress to push more states in that direction through changes to federal law.

Kansas suspended or cancelled more than 30,000 voter applications lacking citizenship documents. Kobach argued the documentation was necessary because voter fraud is a widespread problem in the U.S. and Kansas — with many thousands of non-citizens likely already on the voter rolls in his state.

To win his case he had to show proof of that fraud. Kobach said his office had evidence of more than 40 suspected non-citizens who registered to vote since 2000, and 11 who voted.

But he contended that was just “the tip of the iceberg.” His witnesses offered estimates of higher numbers based on statistical extrapolations and surveys that the court ultimately rejected. The plaintiffs brought in experts on statistics and elections from Harvard and other universities who said Kobach’s evidence relied on bad methodology.

Robinson’s ruling also chastises the secretary of state and gubernatorial hopeful for running afoul of rules for submitting evidence and other trial procedures. She reprimanded Kobach several times a day throughout the trial in March and a dramatic contempt hearing that followed.

In April, the judge found Kobach in contempt for violating her orders to notify people who had registered to vote without providing citizenship papers that they could cast ballots while the lawsuit was pending. Kobach’s office faces tens of thousands of dollars in ACLU court fees for losing that contempt ruling, which he is also appealing.

Monday’s decision orders the secretary personally to attend six hours of extra legal training after “repeated and flagrant violations of discovery and disclosure rules.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

I'm the creator of the environmental podcast Up From Dust. I write about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. My goal is to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.
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