It’s not exactly news that some states, citing a largely imaginary threat of voter fraud, have imposed unnecessary burdens on those who want to participate in democracy’s most important activity. Now we learn that the states trying to make voting harder have an ally at the federal agency designed to make voting easier.
Brian D. Newby, the executive director of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, has agreed to requests by Kansas, Georgia and Alabama that the versions of a federal voter registration form used in their states be altered to require proof of U.S. citizenship. Such forms are available at state and local government offices, including DMVs – thus the term “motor voter” – and allow citizens to register to vote by mailing in the form.
As with demands that voters produce government-issued photo IDs on Election Day, the proof-of-citizenship requirement for voter registration is justified by its proponents on the grounds of preventing fraud. But it is extremely rare for non-citizens to seek to register, just as impersonation of voters at the polls is rare. Besides, the standard form requires registrants to affirm, under penalty of perjury, that they are U.S. citizens
Weighed against the virtually non-existent problem of fraudulent registration is the fact that a proof-of-citizenship requirement excludes potential voters who don’t possess such documentation, a group in which poor Americans (and probably racial minorities) are overrepresented. It also discourages registration by others – such as college students seeking to vote where they attend school – who might find it time-consuming to lay hands on a birth certificate or passport. In Kansas, according to a study by the Wichita Eagle, more than 40 percent of people on a list of “suspended voters” – those who attempted to register but didn’t meet all of the requirements – were under 30.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Arizona on its own couldn’t require proof of citizenship for voters in federal elections and had to “accept and use” the registration form issued by the EAC. The court left open the possibility that states could petition the agency to make changes. But here it was Newby, acting alone, who agreed to the requests from state officials to add the requirement for proof of citizenship, a proposal the commission rightly had rejected in the past.
The League of Women Voters and other groups are challenging Newby’s action in court, arguing that he exceeded his authority and departed from long-standing commission policy that proof of citizenship wasn’t necessary to determine the eligibility of a voter-registration application. We hope they prevail, but the move to require proof of citizenship also calls for action by Congress.
Under the Constitution, Congress can override state decisions about the “time, places and manner” of elections for the U.S. House and Senate and also can pass legislation to enforce the 15th Amendment’s ban on racial discrimination in voting.
Even if the courts stymie this latest exercise in voter suppression, Congress should revisit the issue and make it clear that the promise of “motor voter” – that registering to vote would be no harder than necessary – remains the law of the land.