Appeals court nixes proof of citizenship for voting in Georgia

A federal appeals court ruling late Friday blocked Georgia and two other states from requiring proof of citizenship when residents registered to vote using federal forms, a victory for voting rights group that had little immediate effect in Georgia since the state had not been enforcing the requirement.

The case stemmed from a decision earlier this year by a top federal elections official, U.S. Election Assistance Commission executive director Brian Newby, to unilaterally allow Georgia, Alabama and Kansas to request citizenship documentation such as a birth certificate, naturalization papers or passport when residents used a federal mail-in voter registration form.

In other states, people using the same forms to register must swear that they are citizens, but do not have to show birth certificates or other documents as proof.

Newby, a former Kansas election official who had publicly supported that state’s effort to change the federal registration form, made his decision without public notice or review from his agency’s commissioners.

He had defended the decision as a routine administrative action within his authority, but voting rights groups criticized the changes as “secretive” and said they created additional barriers for potential voters.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Friday sided with the groups, saying Newby had overstepped his authority in a 2-1 ruling that came only a day after the panel heard oral arguments in the case.

While Georgia was one of three states given permission to require documentary proof of U.S. citizenship on federal voter registration forms, it actually first considered asking for that requirement years ago.

The state in 2009 passed a law requiring voter registration applicants to provide proof of U.S. citizenship, such as copies of passports or birth certificates, but had not been able to enforce it because it could not get into a federal immigration database that could be used to confirm citizenship.

Then, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar statute in Arizona was preempted by federal law. The ruling in effect partly blocked Georgia’s law, leading Secretary of State Brian Kemp to say at the time that he would consider asking the EAC to add new instructions on federal voter registration forms so Georgia can require proof of U.S. citizenship.

After Newby granted that request earlier this year, a number of Georgia voting advocates became part of a federal lawsuit seeking to block Newby’s decision.

The Georgia NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and the League of Women Voters of Georgia in February joined a suit filed by national organizations including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The groups argued that Newby’s actions were illegal under both EAC policy and federal law. They said the requirement would have a chilling effect on voter registration in the three states, as well as impede civic participation in voting.

The disputed forms involved only federal elections; states are free to require ID from people to vote in local races.

Neither Georgia nor Alabama had been enforcing their proof-of-citizenship laws. Kemp’s office did not immediately respond Sunday to a request for comment.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach argued for the change in court Thursday, saying Kansas voter rolls had grown overall and that there was no proof the requirement was a barrier for some residents to register to vote.