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A judge in Kansas just struck down one of the toughest voter ID laws in the country. Here's what you need to know

A judge in Kansas just struck down one of the toughest voter ID laws in the country. Here's what you need to know
A voter casts his ballot in a special election June 20 outside Atlanta. Georgia has also passed a measure requiring proof of citizenship to register. (David Goldman / Associated Press)

In 2011, Kansas passed a law that Republicans said was aimed at ending voter fraud by requiring people to show proof of citizenship to register to vote.

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But opponents argued that it was really an attempt to reduce registration by blacks and Latinos — who tend to vote Democratic — and challenged the law with a barrage of lawsuits.

On Monday, a federal judge agreed and struck it down.

The decision is a victory for civil rights groups and a rebuke of the law’s architect, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who oversaw President Trump’s now defunct voter fraud commission and is running for governor as a Republican.

In a 188-page ruling, Judge Julie Robinson said the law “disproportionately impacts … qualified registration applicants, while only nominally preventing noncitizen voter registration.”

Here’s some background on the law and the recent ruling:

How did the law come about?

In the months after Kobach became secretary of state in 2011, he called on the state’s Republican-led Legislature to pass a measure to stop perceived voter fraud. The Kansas Secure and Fair Elections Act mandated that Kansans must produce government-issued identification, such as a driver’s license, a military ID or a passport, to register to vote.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly passed the measure and sent it to the desk of then-Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, who signed it into law.

The stated motive of the law was questionable from the start. Studies have consistently shown that voter fraud is almost nonexistent — in Kansas and nationwide. Kansas secretary of state records showed that between 2005 and 2009 — a period when millions of people cast ballots — only seven cases of alleged fraud were referred to authorities in local, state and federal races.

Even so, Kobach and the Legislature lauded passage of the bill as a victory for Kansans.

“Every effort must be made to protect each legitimate vote from being canceled by fraudulent voter activity,” Kobach said at the time. “Voter fraud is a national problem, and Kansas has offered a solution that will protect every state that adopts it.”

What happened next?

It got ugly — fast.

Since the law took effect in 2013, dozens of groups, including the local chapters of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and American Civil Liberties Union, along with voting rights groups, filed lawsuits that alleged the new measure would suppress voter turnout by making it difficult to register and vote.

The measure saw several back-and-forth battles in lower courts. Monday’s ruling, however, is the most significant to date.

What did the ruling say?

Robinson was ruling on a 2016 lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of the League of Women Voters and individual Kansans. The suit argued that the law disenfranchised people who were attempting to register legally but did not have access to the required identification. The ACLU estimated that that more than 35,000 citizens were blocked from registering to vote between 2013 and 2016.

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Kobach countered that the law was working. He said that 129 noncitizens had attempted to register to vote since 2000, and that the law was blocking such attempts.

In her decision, the judge said the law violated both the Constitution and the National Voter Registration Act, a 1993 law that requires states to offer people the opportunity to register to vote when renewing a driver’s license or public assistance.

“The Court finds that the burden imposed on Kansans by this law outweighs the state’s interest in preventing noncitizen voter fraud, keeping accurate voter rolls, and maintaining confidence in elections,” she wrote.

In addition, Robinson said that Kobach would not be allowed to renew his law license until he took six hours of legal education.

Hours after the ruling, Kobach said he would appeal.

“Judge Robinson is the first judge in the country to come to the extreme conclusion that requiring a voter to prove his citizenship is unconstitutional. Her conclusion is incorrect, and it is inconsistent with precedents of the U.S. Supreme Court,” Kobach’s office said in a statement.

What have voting rights groups said about the Kansas ruling?

It was their clearest victory to date against Kobach.

Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said the ruling “is a stinging rebuke of Kris Kobach and the centerpiece of his voter-suppression efforts: a show-me-your papers law that has disenfranchised tens of thousands of Kansans.”

“That law was based on a xenophobic lie that noncitizens are engaged in rampant election fraud,” Ho said.

Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said the ruling confirms that “noncitizen voter fraud is very rare” and that the law was never needed.

“Fortunately Kansas voters will no longer be saddled with this unjustified burden on their voting rights, imposed as part of Mr. Kobach’s agenda,” she said.

The ruling could also give pause to other states considering such laws. Alabama and Georgia have passed measures requiring proof of citizenship when registering to vote, but the laws are not being enforced.

Where does Kobach go from here?

Kobach is facing a competitive Republican primary in August. It’s unclear how much the federal ruling this week will matter to Kansas voters.

It was Kobach’s second major setback of the year.

The first involved the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which Trump created by executive order in May 2017 with the mission of restoring confidence and integrity in the electoral process. He made Kobach, a staunch ally during the 2016 election, the vice chairman.

The commission soon faced a flurry of lawsuits over privacy concerns for seeking personal data on voters across the country.

In January, Trump issued an executive order to disband the commission. He did so “rather than engage in endless legal battles at taxpayer expense,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at the time.

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