The U.S. District Court for Arizona has preliminarily enjoined two key provisions of Arizona’s recent effort to regulate voter registration. Importantly, it found the statute’s provision seeking to criminalize efforts to register out-of-state voters is likely unconstitutionally vague and further that the registration cancellation provisions likely violate the National Voter Registration Act.
A federal judge ruled Thursday that the South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office is not following federal laws requiring state agencies to make it easier to register to vote.
Judge Lawrence Piersol, of the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, issued a wide-ranging opinion that sided with two South Dakota tribes, the Rosebud Sioux and the Oglala Sioux.
The tribes brought suit in 2020, arguing that the Secretary of State’s Office was not adequately addressing federal law. The National Voter Registration Act requires state agencies to help voters register to vote when they interact with government agencies for other services.
For example, voter registration opportunities must be provided under the act when people apply for drivers’ licenses, or apply for public assistance. When a person submits a change-of-address form for a driver’s license, the act provides that it should also serve as a change of address for voter registrations, at least when it comes to federal elections.
Licensing and public benefits are under the auspices of the Department of Public Safety and the Department of Social Services. Piersol found that the Secretary of State’s Office was not providing enough oversight to ensure those offices were fulfilling their responsibility under the act.
Piersol also found that the Department of Public Safety was responsible for transmitting voter registrations to the county auditor, but numerous errors were stopping that process from happening. Piersol also ruled that when the Department of Public Safety contracts with other government agencies to provide licensing services, the department is still obligated to comply with federal voter registration requirements. Such so-called “issue sites” include the office in Dupree, South Dakota in the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.
You can find the court’s order at this link.
I have seen a lot a skepticism lately about relying on courts to protect the equal right of eligible voters to participate in an election by casting a ballot and having it counted accurately. But unless Congress is going to exercise its constitutional power to create an entirely new federal bureau of election administration to run congressional elections (and states would willingly let this new federal bureau administer other elections, like gubernatorial and the popular vote to appoint presidential electors), what’s the alternative?
How can we tell if every eligible voter who wants to cast a ballot is meaningfully able to do so in a specific election (like the upcoming midterms)–and thus is not being denied their fundamental right to vote? First, assuming a state does not have same-day registration, the voter must have an adequate opportunity to register in advance. While same-day registration certainly makes access to the ballot easier, I would not argue that the absence of same-day registration is a denial of the right to vote, as long as the state provides its eligible citizens with a genuine opportunity to register in advance. If state officials failed to do that, in violation of existing federal law, it would be necessary to turn to the courts to enforce that right. (And even if federal law were to require same-day registration nationwide, it would be necessary to rely on federal-court enforcement of that right in the event of noncompliance, deliberate or otherwise, by state and local election officials.)
Assuming eligible citizens have a meaningful opportunity to register in advance, what about their opportunity to cast a ballot? The essential role of provisional ballots, as required by HAVA, should not be overlooked in this respect. All voters who believe themselves to be registered have an existing federal-law right to cast a provisional ballot. I worry about long lines at the polls as a practical obstacle to voters wishing to cast a ballot, including a provisional one if necessary, but voters who want to make sure they are not denied their right to vote must insist that they cast at least a provisional ballot and refuse to leave their polling place without being able to do so. If state and local officials fail to comply with this existing federal-law obligation to give a provisional ballot to all voters who request one, it would be necessary to go to court seeking an emergency TRO to make sure these provisional ballots get into voters hands while they remain waiting in line.
Compliance with the existing federal-law obligation to give voters provisional ballots is especially important in a presidential election for this reason: if voters who want to cast a ballot but who are denied the opportunity to cast one and leave their polling places without casting one, there is no possibility of a do-over after Election Day has passed, at least not under existing federal law. Why? Because if the claim is that a state’s popular vote in a presidential election is fundamentally defective because there were a group of voters (say, for example, many in Atlanta) who were denied their right to cast a provisional ballot, then the popular-vote election for the purpose of appointing the state’s electors will have “failed to make a choice on the day prescribed by law” under 3 U.S.C. 2, thereby giving the state’s legislature the right to choose an alternative method of appointing electors (including direct appointment by the legislature itself).
Thus, as we contemplate the possibility of partisan state and local election officials (along with partisan state legislatures) attempting to engineer electoral outcomes in contravention to free and fair elections, including by denying eligible citizens the right to cast a ballot, we ultimately must rely on courts to uphold the law that guarantees the right to cast a ballot. Above all, this includes the key provisions of the federal Help America Vote Act that insist that no voter be turned away from the polls without having a chance to cast a provisional ballot, which must eventually be counted if indeed the voter was registered and eligible to participate in the election as the voter believed. I’m afraid that, as we think about how to safeguard democracy from the very real dangers that exist, we are neglecting the need to remain vigilant about the judicial protection, if necessary, of the essential right to cast a provisional ballot.
Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger on Friday made public the names of nearly 102,000 people who are at risk of having their Georgia voter registrations canceled, a warning before they lose their ability to vote next month.
The mass cancellations, called voter “purges” by their critics, target registered voters who moved or didn’t participate in elections for several years.
Fewer voter registrations are being canceled this year than in 2017, when 534,000 were eliminated from Georgia’s voter rolls during the largest removal of registrations in U.S. history. Most of the state’s outdated registrations were already canceled in prior years.
A persistent Texas voter, twice thwarted when he tried registering to vote while renewing his driver’s license online, has for the second time convinced a federal judge that the state is violating federal law.
In a 68-page ruling Friday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio found that Texas continues to violate the federal National Voter Registration Act by not allowing residents to register to vote when they update their driver’s license information online.
Garcia found that DPS is “legally obligated” to allow voters to simultaneously register to vote with every license renewal or change-of-address application, and ordered the state to set up a “fully operable” online system by Sept. 23. The Texas attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the state is likely to appeal the ruling.
It’s the second time Garcia has sided with the voter, former English professor Jarrod Stringer. Garcia’s first ruling was overturned on appeal on a technicality.
A federal court has blocked an Indiana law that would have allowed county elections officials to kick voters off the rolls immediately without notice.
The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Indiana, Demos, and the firm Davis Wright Tremaine challenged the law, which sought to circumvent federally mandated safeguards from a state purge process, allowing voters to be purged based solely on second-hand information without notice or an opportunity to correct the record.
Previously in this case, federal courts struck down a virtually identical law that relied on data from the controversial Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck program. Instead of fixing the problems, Indiana enacted a new law that replicated the same flawed procedures and simply swapped the Crosscheck program with an Indiana-based program called the Indiana Data Enhancement Association.
Kansas will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on a state law championed by former secretary of state Kris Kobach — struck down by lower courts— that requires residents to prove their citizenship when registering to vote.
The request, announced Tuesday morning by Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, sets up a potentially historic showdown over voting rights if the court takes the case, with the justices possibly deciding how far states can go in imposing requirements on would-be voters.
Dale Ho, lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in the case, said he was confident that the plaintiffs would prevail at the Supreme Court— as they had at the district court and appeals level.
“It stopped more than 30,000 Kansans from exercising their right to vote. Kansas’ law has been found to violate federal law multiple times, as well as the United States Constitution,” Ho said.
“It’s sad that the secretary of state and the attorney general of Kansas would seek to resuscitate Kris Kobach’s sorry legacy of voter suppression,” Ho said in a phone call….
Rick Hasen, an election law professor at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, said he was surprised by Kansas’ decision to seek a Supreme Court review of the case.
“The Supreme Court’s rules require it to defer to the factual findings of the trial court, and the the trial court found as a matter of fact that Kobach utterly failed to prove his case that noncitizen voter fraud was a real problem in Kansas. He called it the ‘tip of the iceberg’ but the trial court found it to be an ‘icicle’ made up mostly of administrative error,” Hasen said in a message.
Schwab said judicial review is needed “to provide clarity” on the issue.
“This is a really important appeal. It has consequences for the entire country, so I’m hopeful the Supreme Court will take the case and if they do take the case I am confident they will overturn the 10th circuit,” Kobach said in a phone call Tuesday.
New Brennan Center resource.
In a major ruling, a 10th Circuit panel (consisting of 2 judges, as a third judge on the panel had passed away), a Tenth Circuit panel has held that a Kansas anti-voting law championed by former Secretary of State Kris Kobach violated both the Constitution’s equal protection clause and was preempted by the federal motor-voter law. The law at issue required those who wished to register to vote in Kansas to provide documentary proof of citizenship—such as a birth certificate or naturalization certificate—in order to register to vote. Until the ACLU secured a preliminary injunction against this law, about 30,000 people had their voter registrations suspended and were not allowed to vote in Kansas elections.
I wrote about the trial in this case (then called Fish v. Kobach and now Fish v. Schwab on appeal) in my book, Election Meltdown. I called the case the most important voting trial of the 21st century so far because it was the chance for those like Kobach who claim that voter fraud is a major problem in the United States to prove that in a court of law under the rules of evidence. As I detail in the book, Kobach’s proof was woefully inadequate and his expert witnesses embarassingly bad. Kobach was later sanctioned for how he ran the trial and for misleading the ACLU about the contents of a document he had given to President Trump.
Kobach had claimed that the amount of noncitizen voting was the tip of the iceberg, but the trial court, after an extensive trial where Kobach was given every chance to prove his case, as no more than “an icicle, largely created by confusion and administrative error.”
Today’s 10th circuit opinion agreed that preventing voter fraud is a compelling interest, but that Kansas could not prove its law was necessary to prevent such fraud:
To start, the district court found essentially no evidence that the integrity of Kansas’s electoral process had been threatened, that the registration of ineligible voters had caused voter rolls to be inaccurate, or that voter fraud had occurred. In particular, it found that, “at most, 67 noncitizens registered or attempted to register in Kansas over the last 19 years.” Aplt.’s App., Vol. 47, at 11519. Of these, “[a]t most, 39 noncitizens have found their way onto the Kansas voter rolls in the last 19 years.” Id. at 11520. The Secretary does not argue that these factual findings are clearly erroneous. Thus we are left with this incredibly slight evidence that Kansas’s interest in counting only the votes of eligible voters is under threat. Indeed, even as to those 39 noncitizens who appear on the Kansas voter rolls, the district court effectively found that “administrative anomalies” could account for the presence of many—or perhaps even most—of them there.Id.
Supporting this determination is the fact that Kansas’s voter-registration database included 100 individuals with purported birth dates in the 19th century and 400 individuals with purported birth dates after their date of voter registration. And so it is quite likely that much of this evidence of noncitizen registration is explained by administrative error.
The Secretary also presented the district court with out-of-state evidence about election fraud and noncitizen registration. But the district court concluded that, “looking beyond Kansas, [the Secretary’s] evidence of noncitizen registration at trial was weak.” Id. at 11519. It explained at length why it excluded large portions of the Secretary’s expert testimony and found much of the remaining testimony unpersuasive. Id. (explaining that one of the Secretary’s experts was “credibly dismantled” by the architect of the survey upon which the expert had relied and that the court “d[id] not fully credit” a second expert’s testimony “given its inclusion of misleading and false assertions”). We have no doubt that inaccurate voter registrations exist in our country, see, e.g., Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Inst., — U.S. —-, 138 S. Ct. 1833, 1838 (2018) (“It has been estimated that 24 million voter registrations in the United States—about one in eight—are either invalid or significantly inaccurate.”), but the Secretary fails to connect this generalized information to the DPOC requirement at issue here or to argue that the district court clearly erred in finding that “the trial evidence did not demonstrate the largescale problem urged by [the Secretary].” Aplt.’s App., Vol. 47, at 11520. In light of the significant burden on the right to vote, we thus do not rely on the Secretary’s out-of-state evidence of voter-fraud and nonvoter registration.
I do not know if Kansas will seek en banc review or cert. before the Supreme Court. This law was Kobach’s baby and he’s no longer in office. This would be a terrible record to take up to try to get a reversal because Kobach litigated this case so poorly.
Make no mistake–this is a huge victory. As the 10th circuit noted, unlike voter identification cases where it sometimes has been hard for plaintiffs to prove that the law burdens most voters, this law literally disenfranchised tens of thousands of people. “These factual findings create a fundamental distinction between this case and Crawford: based on an extensive record, the district court here concluded that the Kansas Secretary of State actually denied approximately thirty thousand would-be voters’ registration applications in his implementation of the DPOC requirement, while, in Crawford, the scant evidence before the Court left it with the unenviable task of attempting to estimate the magnitude of the burden on voting rights, largely from untested extra-record sources.”
This is a huge win for voters, and it clears away a law that disenfranchised thousands but prevented no appreciable amount of voter fraud.
The latest from the Marc Elias litigation machine is a challenge in Texas to the rejection of voter registration forms with digital pictures of signatures.
The complaint notes that, among other things, when voters register to vote along with getting a driver’s license, they sign devices that store the signature in electronic form and transmit digital images of the signature to election officials.
Sam Levine, from his new post at the Guardian, with a report.
On Friday, the federal court rejected a preliminary injunction seeking to reinstate about 98,000 registration entries who had not responded to notices or contacted election officials since January 1, 2012 – declining (under Pennhurst) to issue a federal order enforcing state law, and otherwise finding insufficient proof of severe constitutional burden. More here and here.