By Mary Jo Pitzl and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez, The Arizona Republic
"There are going to be unnecessary burdens imposed on citizens," said Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, which has been fighting the stricter voter-registration rules since 2005. Wercinski and other critics say voters already attest to their citizenship twice when they fill out the federal form. They must check a box indicating they are a U.S. citizen and they sign the form, affirming they have answered truthfully, under penalty of perjury. "They sign under oath," Wercinski said. "In America, does our signature under oath no longer hold any weight?"
A federal judge ruled Wednesday that Arizona can require residents to prove they are U.S. citizens in order to register to vote — a controversial change state officials said they'll implement immediately.
The ruling applies to prospective voters using the federal voter-registration form in both Arizona and Kansas. The states joined to challenge a decision by the Federal Elections Assistance Commission that blocked the states from requiring citizenship documents in order to register to vote.
The case was filed in Kansas, and argued in February before U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren in Topeka. His ruling clears the way for the states to add their own requirements to the federal form.
Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett, the state's top elections officer, applauded the decision, which he learned about during a phone call with his Kansas counterpart, Kris Kobach.
The ruling is a victory for state's rights, Bennett said, and eliminates the need for a "two-track" voting system for state and federal registration forms, which had different requirements related to proving citizenship. Bennett and other elections officials have been readying the system for this year's primary and general elections.
However, he added, they will proceed with those plans since they anticipate the ruling will be appealed.
Opponents said an appeal is certain. The ruling, they say, will make it harder for new would-be voters to register, especially students from out of state.
"There are going to be unnecessary burdens imposed on citizens," said Sam Wercinski, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network, which has been fighting the stricter voter-registration rules since 2005.
Wercinski and other critics say voters already attest to their citizenship twice when they fill out the federal form. They must check a box indicating they are a U.S. citizen and they sign the form, affirming they have answered truthfully, under penalty of perjury.
"They sign under oath," Wercinski said. "In America, does our signature under oath no longer hold any weight?"
Wercinski speculated the case was filed in Kansas, as opposed to Arizona, to avoid an appeal before the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That court earlier sided with critics of Arizona's voter-registration requirements.
Arizona and Kansas sued the Federal Election Assistance Commission, which had not acted on the states' request for help in changing the federal election registration form to include proof of citizenship. After the suit was filed last year, the commission did act, denying the states' request to alter the form.
Judge Melgren ruled the commission, a branch of the U.S. Department of Justice, had no legal right to deny the states' request.
The elections commission did not return a call seeking comment on the ruling.
Attorney General Tom Horne, whose office argued the state's case in Topeka, called Melgren's decision a victory for election integrity.
"It's important because voter fraud is a significant problem in Arizona," he told The Arizona Republic, adding that he believes there "has been what I consider to be a media cover-up of the extent to which voter fraud is a problem in Arizona."
A recent Republic examination of voter-fraud cases in Maricopa County showed those involving illegal immigrants are nearly non-existent, and have been since before voter-ID requirements were tightened in 2004.
"This is a significant victory for the voters of Arizona over the Obama administration ... because it ensures that only citizens and not illegals will vote in Arizona elections," Horne said.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said he was disappointed by the judge's ruling, saying college students will be particularly harmed.
In 2012, scores of university students from out of state registered to vote in Arizona using the federal form, only to be rejected because they could not prove citizenship. The students typically didn't bring the needed proof, such as a birth certificate, to Arizona when they arrived here to attend college.
Elections officials scrambled to get them registered in time for the presidential election, but many did not make the cut.
"It's a bad day for democracy," Gallardo said. The decision contradicts the intent of the federal voter form, which was designed to make registration easier, he said.
"Once again, we are placing barriers in front of voters," said Gallardo, who along with the Advocacy Network, was an original plaintiff challenging Arizona's voter-registration laws.
Bennett last fall announced Arizona would create a two-track voting system: One for voters who registered using the state form and another for those using the federal form. Those using the federal form would be allowed to vote only in federal elections; those who want to vote in the upcoming governor or legislative races would be blocked unless they used the state form with its citizenship requirements.
Bennett said he'll continue to work on the dual-track system in the event the appeal results in an injunction that would prevent the state from altering the federal form. The system is expected to affect 900 people and cost an extra $250,000 in Maricopa County alone, according to figures available late last year.
Arizona's requirements to prove citizenship:
If registering in person or by mail:
- birth certificate
- U.S. passport
If registering online:
- Your name from your Arizona driver's license or ID card (Arizona requires proof of citizenship to get a driver's license)
Source: Arizona Secretary of State
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