Fighting Voter Registration Obstacles

Voting rights advocates trying to rein in the head of the beleaguered federal Election Assistance Commission are getting no favors from the courts. Last week, a D.C. Circuit Court judge declined to issue a preliminary injunction blocking what critics say are voter-registration barriers that violate federal law.

Back in January, Brian Newby, the commission’s executive director, unilaterally approved requests from Georgia, Alabama, and Kansas to  require voters to provide proof of citizenship when they use a federal mail-in voter registration form.

Soon after, the League of Women Voters sued Newby and the commission in an attempt to block those actions, arguing that Newby violated federal law by approving changes to the form without a full commission vote.

Now the judge has refused to temporarily block the states’ new requirements while the case proceeds, potentially making it more difficult for people in those states to register to vote in upcoming elections.

“While we are disappointed in [the] decision, we will appeal to protect the critical rights of voters in these three states, especially during this election year,” Chris Carson, the League of Women Voters president, said in a statement.

The League believes that not only are Newby’s actions contrary to the commission’s own protocols, which require that all members of the commission vote on such matters, but they are also a clear departure from previous commission rulings and Supreme Court decisions.

In 2014, the commission rejected similar requests from Arizona and Kansas to require people to submit proof of citizenship with the federal mail-in form.

Moreover, the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship requirement for federal mail-in registrations was preempted by federal law. “The Federal Form provides a backstop,” wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the majority opinion. “No matter what procedural hurdles a State’s own form imposes, the Federal Form guarantees that a simple means of registering to vote in federal elections will be available no matter what procedural hurdles a State’s own form imposes.”

The League and other voting rights advocates who have joined the suit argue that Newby is both abusing his power by acting unilaterally and is granting states an unprecedented path to further suppress voter access by circumventing federal law.

“If Mr. Newby’s decision were to be found OK, that would make it so any state could require documentary proof to register to vote,” Lloyd Leonard, the League’s senior director of advocacy, told the Prospect in April. “This is really the battle over how much restriction there should be [in the federal form].”

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