Activists contest proof-of-citizenship rule for voter registration

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( – A group of voting rights activists is up in arms after the executive director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) told elections officials in three states that they could require residents to provide documented proof of U.S. citizenship when using federal forms to register to vote.

On Wednesday, the coalition filed a complaint in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asking a federal judge for a temporary restraining order blocking the changes in Alabama, Georgia and Kansas.

“Voters have been using the Federal Form to register without having to comply with a documentary proof of citizenship requirement for over two decades, but the Executive Director’s sudden unilateral changes to the Federal Form – implemented without public notice – ratchet up the requirements for registering to vote at the last-minute, mere weeks before primary elections and a presidential caucus in the affected states,” according to the complaint.

“Imposing such eleventh-hour restrictions on voting risks voter and election official confusion and is contrary to the public interest,” it argued.

Under federal law, only U.S. citizens are eligible to vote in federal elections. In most states, residents do not have to provide documentation proving they are eligible, but merely sign a sworn statement declaring that they are U.S. citizens.

The three states based their requests to add the documentation requirement on a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said “a state may request that the EAC alter the federal form to include information the state deems necessary to determine eligibility.”

On January 29, EAC executive directorBrian Newby sent letters to the chief election officials in the three states approving their requests, stating that they could start requiring proof of U.S. citizenship – such as a birth certificate, naturalization papers, or a passport – on their national mail voter registration forms.

The federal forms, which are an alternative to state and local voter registration forms, are developed and maintained by the EAC, an independent, bipartisan commission created by theHelp America Vote Act of 2002.

But Newby’s approval drew howls of protest from voting rights activists, whoaccused him of unilaterally changing policy without the consent of EAC’s three commissioners.

Newby responded that he had the authority to make administrative changes, including adding “state-specific instructions” to the federal registration form.

A Feb. 11 letter signed by 35 groups ranging from the Advancement Projectto Voices for Progress urged Newby to rescind his approval, calling it “improper and contrary to agency procedures, policy, and governing law.”

A 2014 study by researchers at Virginia’s Old Dominion and George Mason Universities found that “some non-citizens participate in U.S. elections, and that this participation has been large enough to change meaningful election outcomes including Electoral College votes, and Congressional elections.”

— Written by Barbara Hollingsworth