Midwestern voter suppression

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By Michael Brey, University of Iowa Law School

Two recent court rulings chronicle the ongoing battle over voter suppression laws in the Midwest.

On Wednesday, March 19, a federal judge’s ruling in Kansas reinforced the state’s strict proof-of-citizenship laws that make it harder for eligible persons to register and vote.  Kansas, along with Arizona, sued the United States Election Assistance Commission (EAC) for denying the state’s request to include their ultra-restrictive voting rules on the federal voter registration form.  While Kansas and Arizona require voters to prove their citizenship through documentation, federal rules only require voters to sign a form attesting to their citizenship on penalty of perjury.

The federal district judge ruled that the EAC does not have authority to deny the state’s request.  The immediate effect of the decision is to allow Kansas and Arizona to require citizens to provide proof of their citizenship when they register to vote.  The likely broader effect was seen only days after the decision, when Alabama’s chief election official stated that Alabama will follow Kansas and Arizona in enforcing a proof of citizenship requirement. Many states are expected to follow suit.

One of those states may well be Iowa.  The Iowa Secretary of State, Matt Schultz, has been in litigation for over a year due to his attempt to purge registration rolls of names that did not appear on other state or federal lists on the suspicion that they were non-citizens.  Earlier this month an Iowa judge struck down that attempt on the grounds that Schultz did not have authority to create and implement the purge procedure.

Voting laws and attempted practices like those of Arizona, Kansas, and Iowa are said to prevent voter fraud, yet there is no evidence that voter fraud is a problem. As a result, these heavy-handed laws end up making it more difficult for eligible voters to exercise their rights at the polls. This difficulty falls disproportionately on minority and low-income voters, and in particular on those that were naturalized rather than born in the U.S.

Judge Richard Posner of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in an extra-judicial statement last year, questioned the motives of legislators introducing a requirement that voters prove their identity with photo ID before voting, stating that these laws are ‘now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention.’  We think the same applies to proof of citizenship laws, and hope a Court will soon agree.