TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas' Republican attorney general plans to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the state to require new voters to provide papers documenting their citizenship when registering.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt announced Tuesday that he will appeal a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in April that said the state could not enforce a proof-of-citizenship law. An appeals-court panel said the law violated the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of equal legal protection as well as a federal voter registration law.
Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly decried Schmidt's decision, saying he was supporting voter suppression and suggested that he is ignoring nationwide protests over George Floyd's death after being detained by police in Minnesota.
“While leaders across the country are urging demonstrators to direct their hurt, anger, and grievances towards the voting booth, the attorney general is fighting to take away the most powerful non-violent tool that our democracy provides, and disenfranchise thousands of fellow Kansans," Kelly said in a statement.
If the U.S. Supreme Court takes the case, it could have broader implications because Alabama, Arizona and Georgia have proof-of-citizenship laws on their books, and Republican officials in other states have wanted to enact them. Critics of such laws believe they're designed to suppress the vote, particularly among groups that tend to vote Democratic.
The Kansas law was championed as an anti-fraud measure by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a hard-right conservative who was vice chairman of President Donald Trump’s now-defunct voter fraud commission. Kobach was a leading source for Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that “millions” of immigrants living in the U.S. voted in the 2016 election, when Trump lost the popular vote but prevailed in enough states to win in the electoral college.
“Kansas is going to win,” Kobach said Tuesday. “It's a really important appeal because the rest of the country is watching.”
Both the federal appeals court and a federal judge in Kansas who heard a lawsuit against the proof-of-citizenship law concluded that Kobach could show only a small potential for fraud that didn't justify adding such a restriction on voting rights.
Kansas' registration form has long required potential voters to mark a box or circle affirming that they are citizens and face criminal penalties if they lie. Voting-rights advocates contend that's sufficient to deter fraud, and many experts say voter fraud — is rare.
Under the Kansas law, the appeals court noted, more than 31,000 potential voters had their registration suspended or canceled for failing to meet the proof-of-citizenship requirement. Meanwhile, the judges noted that at most, 67 non-citizens registered or attempted to register in Kansas in the past 19 years, something it called “incredibly slight” evidence that the state faced a threat to its interests in making sure only citizens vote.
Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project, said pursuing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is an attempt “to resuscitate Kris Kobach’s sorry legacy of voter suppression” and “an insult to Kansas voters.”
“This law disenfranchised more than 30,000 Kansans, denying them the most fundamental right in our democracy,” Ho said, adding that he is confident the previous court rulings will stand.
The Republican-controlled Legislature approved the law at Kobach’s urging in 2011 and it took effect in 2013.
Kelly voted for the final version of the proof-of-citizenship law as a state senator in 2011, but like other Democrats who backed it then, came to see it has harmful to voting rights after it was put into effect. Kelly defeated Kobach in the 2018 governor's race.
Schmidt said he decided to appeal after conferring with current Secretary of State Scott Schwab, a Republican who also backed the law as a legislator.
"It is prudent we have thorough judicial review to provide clarity on this important issue,” Schwab said in a statement.
Schmidt said in a statement Tuesday that as long as the law remains formally on the books it deserves “a full and robust legal defense.”
“Voting is only for citizens, and this Kansas law is designed to confirm the citizenship of those registering to vote," Schmidt said.
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