Can States Require Proof of Citizenship for Voting?

In 2011, Kansas passed the SAFE Act -- Safe and Fair Elections -- which requires voter ID, proof of citizenship and signature verification. In other words, it's designed to make sure that all votes cast in Kansas are cast legally by the person identified as the voter. The law was to go into effect January 1, 2013. But the Obama administration stood in the way.

At issue are the forms states use to register voters for federal elections. Kansas and Arizona require proof of citizenship, while the federal government's form -- incredibly -- does not. The federal government attempted to force Kansas to use its federal voter registration form. A lawsuit ensued, and Kansas (along with Arizona) won in federal court last month. The outcome affirms the right of states to set requirements for voting within their territory. The Supreme Court upheld an Indiana law requiring voter ID in 2008.

Critics claim that the citizenship requirement is discriminatory, but Senior Legal Fellow of the Heritage Foundation, Hans von Spakovsky, who studies the impact of election integrity laws on elections and called that charge "silly," noting that it's a felony for non-citizens to vote in US federal elections. Therefore, verifying citizenship is just a matter of enforcing existing election law.

Von Spakovsky made his comments Tuesday evening on a conference call organized by True the Vote. The Houston, Texas-based organization is a grass-roots group dedicated to improving the security and integrity of elections across the United States. Its president and founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, moderated the conference call.

Von Spakovsky noted that the court found that the federal government acted well outside its legal powers, when it fought against requiring proof of citizenship and tried to force Kansas to change its own voter registration forms.

Should other states adopt citizenship requirements? Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, architect of the SAFE Act, says that the federal ruling certainly opens the door. Kobach said states that currently have photo ID laws are likely to follow and require citizenship. There are currently about 11 states that require voters produce photo ID when voting. Kobach also noted that court ruled that the federal government simply lacks the power to force states to use the federal voter registration form, despite its assertion of that power against Kansas' SAFE Act. The states, said Kobach, have the power to both set and enforce their voter registration standards, within the bounds of federal requirements.

The judge ruled that "The [National Voting Rights Act] does not empower the federal government to second-guess the states" on voter registration, Kobach said. The Kansas law spells out proof of citizenship, and even allows voters to supply their proof later if they fail to bring it with them when they register to vote.