How One Election Official Has Tried to Change Voting Requirements in Three States Overnight

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots.

Weeks before the election, confusion now surrounds whether you need proof of citizenship documents to vote in Kansas, Alabama and Georgia 

Voters in Alabama, Georgia and Kansas woke up last week to new requirements making it harder to register to vote – just in time for the states’ upcoming 2016 primary and general elections.  

In the middle of the night February 1, while everyone focused on the Iowa Caucus results, Brian Newby, the new executive director for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), sent letters to the chief election officers in Kansas, Georgia and Alabama granting their request that the federal voter registration form require documentary proof of citizenship to register to vote in those states. The policy change is an about-face for the agency, which previously twice rejected the same requests. 

Newby didn’t clear the dramatic change with anyone. It was not voted on, or reviewed, by the Commissioners. The change was imposed without any opportunity for the public to comment on the change.  Newby just went rogue, and his actions could drastically impact the ability of Americans to participate in our democracy.

EAC Vice-Chair Thomas Hicks, Newby’s supervisor, issued a statement that Newby’s actions “contradict policy and precedent previously established by this Commission,” and that the executive director “unilaterally moved.” Just last spring, the Commission voted that the agency staff does not have the authority to make policy decisions and can only make recommendations to the Commission. Hicks called for Newby’s letter to be withdrawn.

Still, the state instructions on the federal form were almost immediately changed in all three states, making registration far more burdensome for new voters in a presidential election year. Previously, no federal form in any state has required proof of citizenship documentation.

Requiring voters to produce these documents will add an unnecessary hurdle for registering to vote, particularly for low-income, elderly and minority voters, who may have difficulty obtaining the necessary documents. It’s estimated that 13 million Americans do not have ready access to U.S. passports, naturalization papers or birth certificates. In 2012, media outlets showcased the absurdity of asking for proof of citizenship by telling the story of 91-year-old World War II veteran Bill Internicola, who was asked to prove his citizenship or lose his right to vote.

Newby’s actions also leave it unclear whether voters in Kansas, Georgia and Alabama can effectively register by mail given these new requirements. 

According to a report by MSNBC:

“The exact impact of Newby’s decision isn’t yet clear, but for now it gives a major boost to [Kansas Secretary of State] Kris Kobach and other Republican secretaries of state, who want to add proof-of-citizenship language to their states’ instructions. If it stands, it could allow those states to require proof of citizenship for anyone wanting to register to vote in any election. It could also make it easier for Kobach to throw out around 30,000 voter registration forms already submitted by people who didn’t provide the necessary documents, as he has been seeking to do.”

Newby is new to the EAC, and is a former county election official in Kansas.

Today, Campaign Legal Center joined with other good-government, civil rights, and voting rights groups in sending a letter calling for Newby to withdraw his letter unilaterally granting the three states’ request to make this significant change in voter registration requirements in federal elections.  

Members of Congress have also called on the Commission to take immediate action to reverse Newby’s action. But that could take months, a real concern given that Kansas will caucus on March 5, and Georgia and Alabama voters head to the polls on March 1. 

Danielle is CLC's Senior Director, Voting Rights.
Sandhya is CLC's Vice President of Communications.