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Jan 16, 2014 4:32 PM by Associated Press

Friday deadline looms in voter citizenship case

WICHITA, KANSAS - Federal elections regulators face a court-imposed deadline on Friday to decide whether to modify voter registration forms so Kansas and Arkansas can fully enforce their proof-of-citizenship voting laws.

Both states sued the government, demanding that it change the federal form so residents of Kansas and Arkansas are required to provide a birth certificate, passport or other proof of U.S. citizenship when registering to vote. The current federal registration form requires only that someone sign a statement under oath that he or she is a U.S. citizen.

U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren, who is handling the lawsuit, set the deadline for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to respond to the states. The commission initially deferred making a decision because all of its seats, which are appointed by the president, are vacant. But the U.S. Justice Department, which represents the commission, said last month that the commission's employees could make a final decision.

Melgren wanted a final agency decision before the court took up the matter. The judge said that if the commission didn't respond by Friday, he would deem the request denied and allow the lawsuit to move forward in federal court in Kansas.

EAC spokesman Bryan Whitener said Thursday that the matter was "still under review." The commission had solicited public comment about requiring additional proof of citizenship for Georgia, Kansas and Arizona. Georgia, which has a similar voter law, is not part of the litigation.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach said he is "waiting with bated breath" for the agency's decision. Kobach has pushed the proof-of-citizenship policy to prevent non-citizens - particularly immigrants living in the U.S. without legal permission - from voting.

Kansas and Arizona contend in the lawsuit that unless their state-specific requirements are added to the federal form, they would be forced to institute a dual voter registration system to enforce their more stringent registration laws.

Under that system, people who use the state form and comply with the proof-of-citizenship rule could vote in any race. But people who used the federal forms and didn't submit citizenship papers would be eligible to vote only in presidential, U.S. Senate and congressional races.

Kobach contends that he has the authority as secretary of state to implement such a dual-registration system in Kansas, but he wants to avoid it. He said that if either the EAC grants the request or Melgren rules in favors of the states, such a system would be unnecessary.

Melgren has not indicated how he would rule if the lawsuit moves forward, but he told a packed courtroom last month that he has serious reservations about the federal government's power to rule on the voter registration issue.

The lawsuit was sparked by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that found Arizona could not refuse to accept the national voter registration form, even though people who use it aren't required to provide citizenship documents. Arizona instituted its proof-of-citizenship law in 2004.

In Kansas, residents can register to vote by either using a state form, which requires the citizenship proof, or the federal form. Voter registration forms of nearly 20,000 Kansas residents are on hold until people provide documentation showing proof of citizenship.

Fewer than 100 people have registered to vote using the federal form in Kansas, Kobach said. But he argued that the Supreme Court decision would force the state to set up a costly and cumbersome dual registration system in order to enforce its more stringent requirements. That would entail training costs, printing separate ballots and reprogramming of the state's election computer system.

The U.S. Justice Department has argued that changing the requirements on the federal form for residents of Kansas and Arizona would in essence affect nationwide policy because it might encourage every state to seek increased proof of citizenship in order to register for federal elections.

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