WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A federal appeals court has delivered a new setback to officials in Arizona and Kansas, ruling that residents in those states can continue registering to vote for now using a federal form without having to show proof of citizenship.
The decision is the latest blow to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who says the federal form — which requires only that people attest under penalty of perjury that they are citizens — creates a "massive loophole" in the enforcement of voting laws in Kansas and Arizona aimed at keeping noncitizens off the rolls.
Late Monday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver extended its halt to U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren's March 19 decision ordering the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to add instructions for Arizona and Kansas residents on the federal voter registration form about those states' proof-of-citizenship requirements. Earlier this month, the same court had issued an emergency stay.
The court also granted a request for a quick hearing in the case. On Tuesday, Kobach softened his earlier threat to implement in Kansas a dual election system in which people who registered using the federal form without citizenship documentation would get a separate ballot listing only federal races. Kobach now says Kansas may not need to do that if the appeals court upholds Melgren's order before the Aug. 5 Kansas primary.
"We were somewhat disappointed, but there is a silver lining," Kobach said of the Monday ruling. "Obviously we would prefer Melgren's decision would stand and would be in effect through the election of 2014 and the court could issue its ruling after November — that would be the most desirable outcome. However, the silver lining here is that the 10th Circuit has decided to expedite the case so that may still get us to the same destination, just by a more hurried route."
Arizona election officials say they are moving ahead with a two-tier election system allowing those who registered using the federal form and provided no documentation to vote only for federal offices.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission declined comment on the ruling. It has argued in filings that adding the state requirements to the federal form suppresses voting and hurts voter registration drives. It contends that the federal form provides an important backstop for federal elections, regardless of "onerous" requirements states may place to vote in their own elections.
Its advocates frequently point to problems in Kansas, which as of Tuesday had 17,790 suspended registrations due to lack of documentation. But the number who actually registered using the federal form is tiny: fewer than 100 voters out of more than 1.72 million voters in Kansas and about 1,550 out of 3.25 million voters in Arizona.
The federal registration form is often used when people from many different states gather at annual association meetings and conventions, said election commission spokesman Bryan Whitener. Rather than having to print each of the state forms, the groups can print a single stack of federal forms.
The threat of a dual election system has already prompted the League of Women Voters of Kansas to use the state version during voter drives. Its efforts have been mostly confined to naturalization ceremonies where people have citizenship paperwork.
"Our understanding is to have a comprehensive ballot, the guaranteed route to that is to use the Kansas form and to encourage documentation," said Dolores Furtado, the league's president.
Associated Press Writer Bob Christie contributed to this report from Phoenix, Ariz.