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Court issues temporary stay over voter citizenship

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Kansas and Arizona residents can continue to register to vote for now using a federal form without having to provide proof of citizenship, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily stayed a ruling from U.S. District Judge Eric Melgren that orders the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to modify its federal voter registration form to add special instructions for Arizona and Kansas residents about those states' proof-of-citizenship requirements.

Circuit Judges Carlos Lucero and Jerome Holmes granted the emergency stay sought Thursday by the commission and voting rights groups, a day after Melgren rejected a similar request to suspend his ruling during the appeal. Melgren had ordered the commission on Wednesday to carry out "without further delay" his March 19 directive.

The temporary halt is in effect until further order from the appeals court. The 10th Circuit judges gave Kansas and Arizona until Tuesday to respond to the commission's request to suspend the ruling during the appeal.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach did not immediately return messages seeking comment left on his business and personal cellphones. EAC spokesman Bryan Whitener did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

In addition to the stay, the commission also asked the court Thursday to consider its appeal of the decision itself on an expedited basis, preferably in a special session this summer.

The EAC argued in its filing that the decision will cause "considerable uncertainty" for voters in Arizona and Kansas in the run-up to the primaries in those states in August and the general election in November. Both states' elections include federal offices.

"The decision is likely to discourage some voters from registering for federal elections, particularly those who do not have ready access to a copy of their birth certificate or other qualifying documentation, and it will work a particular hardship on voter registration drives," the agency argued in its filing. "The harm to voter registration this election cycle cannot be remedied even if this Court reverses."

The commission argued that suspending Melgren's decision pending the appeal will not harm the states because it simply maintains the status quo under which they have carried out their elections for two decades.

Voting rights groups that had intervened in the lawsuit were also seeking a stay of the order, arguing that changing the federal form's requirement now will be particularly damaging because registration is now ongoing for federal elections that will take place months from now.

The groups -- including Project Vote, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, among others -- argued the revisions will make it difficult or impossible to conduct registration drives.

Opponents of proof-of-citizenship requirements contend that the added documentation burdens result in an overall decrease in registration of eligible citizens, undermining the purpose of the National Voter Registration Act. The states argue the requirement protects the integrity of their elections by ensuring noncitizens aren't voting.

Arizona enacted its proof-of-citizenship requirement by voter initiative in 2004, and Alabama, Georgia and Kansas followed with similar laws. Most voters in Arizona and Kansas register with state forms, but their officials said the availability of the federal form created a loophole in enforcement of proof-of-citizenship requirements.

Some 17,604 Kansans now have their voter registrations on hold as a result of the requirement.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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