BELLE PLAINE, Kan. -- A federal appeals court panel ruled Wednesday that Kansas can't require voters to show proof of citizenship when they register, dealing a blow to efforts by Republicans in several states who have pursued voting laws as a way of combating voter fraud.
The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals panel in Salt Lake City upheld a federal judge's injunction nearly two years ago that prohibited Kansas from enforcing the requirement, which took effect in 2013. The appeals court, in a ruling that consolidated two appeals, found the statute former Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law violates the U.S. Constitution's Equal Protection Clause and the National Voter Registration Act, commonly known as the "motor-voter law."
The law was championed by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who led President Donald Trump's now-defunct voter-fraud commission. Kobach was a leading source for Trump's claim that millions of people living in the U.S. illegally may have voted in the 2016 election.
Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said that the ruling doesn't immediately affect other states because Kansas' law was unique in requiring people to show a physical document such as a birth certificate or passport when applying to register to vote. However, Ho said the ruling is grounded in a broader constitutional principle that when a state significantly burdens the right to vote, it has to justify it.
"Kansas wasn't able to muster evidence that the law in question here was necessary to prevent voter fraud, and I think that broader principle could have reverberations beyond the specific context of this case in a wide range of disputes over voting access between now and November," Ho said.
The decision is binding in states covered by the 10th Circuit, which also covers Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Wyoming, plus those portions of the Yellowstone National Park extending into Montana and Idaho.
In reaching the decision, the appeals court noted the "significant burden quantified by the 31,089 voters who had their registration applications cancelled or suspended" in Kansas. They said the interests of the secretary of state do "not justify the burden imposed on the right to vote."
Kansas argued in court filings that it has a compelling interest in preventing voter fraud. It contended its proof-of-citizenship requirement is not a significant burden and protects the integrity of elections and the accuracy of voter rolls.
Critics countered that the documentary proof-of-citizenship law was "a disastrous experiment" that damaged the state's voter rolls, disenfranchised tens of thousands and eroded confidence in the state's elections.
While the court agreed "in the abstract" that Kansas has a legitimate interest in counting only the votes of eligible voters, the court, in an 84-page ruling, said it did not see any evidence that such an interest made it necessary to burden voters' rights in this case.
The judges noted that the district court had found essentially no evidence that the integrity of the state's electoral process had been threatened, that the registration of ineligible voters had caused voter rolls to be inaccurate, or that voter fraud had occurred.
"This law disenfranchised tens of thousands of Kansans, denying them the most fundamental right in our democracy," Ho said.
He called for current Secretary of State Scott Schwab to drop any appeals and "turn the page on Kris Kobach's sorry legacy of voter suppression."
Schwab, a Republican who supported the law as a legislator, said in a written statement that his office is reviewing the decision and will confer with the attorney general on how to move forward.
Kobach said he's not surprised by the "clearly incorrect" ruling by the appeals court judges, based on their judicial philosophy. He said the judges disregarded the plain meaning of the voter registration law's text, making the decision the "essence of judicial activism." He urged Schwab to appeal.
Information for this article was contributed by John Hanna and Heather Hollingsworth of The Associated Press.
A Section on 04/30/2020