Civil and Human Rights

Arizona can’t ask voters for proof of citizenship, Supreme Court rules

By 7 to 2, the Supreme Court justices struck down Arizona’s Proposition 200 as violating the National Voter Registration Act, which requires only a written declaration of US citizenship.


By Warren Richey

June 17, 2013


WASHINGTON – The US Supreme Court has struck down an Arizona requirement that state residents provide documentary proof of US citizenship before being allowed to register to vote, saying the provision violates federal law.


In a 7-to-2 decision, the high court said Monday the state provision violated the terms of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which demands only a written declaration by the would-be registrant that he or she is a US citizen.


In contrast, Arizona’s Proposition 200 required applicants for voter registration to present a drivers’ license, a naturalization ID number, or a photocopy of a birth certificate to register to vote.


“We hold that [the NVRA] precludes Arizona from requiring a Federal Form applicant to submit information beyond that required by the form itself,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority justices.


Opponents of the Arizona measure said it would prevent or discourage some citizens from going to the polls. Arizona officials defended Proposition 200 as an acceptable safeguard to prevent ineligible voters from corrupting the election process.


Critics of the Arizona provision hailed the high court decision as a protection to a broadly open election process.


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“Today’s decision sends a strong message that states cannot block their citizens from registering to vote by superimposing burdensome paperwork requirements on top of federal law,” Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a statement.


“At a time when states are engaging in voter suppression efforts, today’s opinion is an important reaffirmation that the text and history of the Elections Clause give the federal government broad power to preempt state law in order to protect the right to vote in federal elections,” said David Gans of the Constitutional Accountability Center.


Others saw potential trouble in the high court’s action.


“The Supreme Court today opened the door to non-citizen voting by striking down Arizona’s voter registration proof of citizenship requirement,” said Tom Caso, a professor at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, Calif.


At the heart of the dispute was whether Congress preempted state governments in passing the 1993 NVRA, or whether states like Arizona were free to impose additional requirements to prove citizenship during the process of registering new voters.


The case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (12-71), represented the second time in a year that the high court has examined whether a tough Arizona law dealing to a significant degree with immigrants was preempted by more lenient federal law.


A year ago, the court struck down a portion of Arizona’s effort to enforce its own immigration law – SB 1070 – in response to what the state saw as lax federal enforcement of immigration laws and ineffective policing of the border with Mexico.


The high court upheld the most controversial part of that Arizona law, the portion requiring law enforcement officials to check the immigration status during a lawful stop of anyone they had reason to believe was in the US illegally.


In Monday’s ruling, the Supreme Court said that under the Constitution’s Elections Clause, Congress has the power to alter or replace election rules enacted by the states. Congress took such action by passing the NVRA and included a requirement that the states “accept and use” a federal voter registration form, Justice Scalia said.


But the majority justices added that Arizona could still resurrect Proposition 200 by asking a federal agency, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), to supplement the federal registration requirement for use in Arizona with the Proposition 200 proof-of-citizenship requirements.


If the EAC rejects the state’s request, Scalia said, Arizona could then file a lawsuit challenging the rejection in federal court. The state would be able to argue that “a mere oath will not suffice to effectuate its citizenship requirement,” Scalia said.


“Arizona may … request anew that the EAC include such a requirement among the Federal Form’s state-specific instructions,” Scalia wrote in the 18-page decision. If the EAC rejects Arizona’s request, the state can seek judicial review, he added.  


In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said he would hold that Arizona possessed the necessary constitutional authority to impose its requirements on prospective voter registrants.


“The States, not the Federal Government, have the exclusive right to define the “qualifications requisite for electors,” which includes the corresponding power to verify that those qualifications have been met,” Justice Thomas wrote.


“I would, therefore, hold that Arizona may ‘reject any application for registration that is not accompanied by satisfactory evidence of United States citizenship,’ as defined by Arizona law,” he said.


In a separate dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the NVRA does not clearly establish congressional intent to preempt state requirements for voter registration in addition to the one federal requirement. He said the majority justices had embraced a reading of the federal statute that was “atextual and makes little sense.”


Arizona’s citizenship documentation requirement applied to everyone seeking to register to vote. But critics said it fell particularly hard on low-income immigrants who may not have the necessary documents or the ability to easily produce them.


Lawsuits were filed on their behalf seeking to have the measure blocked.


A federal judge agreed with Arizona and upheld Proposition 200, but the full Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Arizona’s documentation requirement was preempted by the NVRA’s less demanding requirement.


On Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed that decision.


“For two decades, the ‘motor voter’ law has made it dramatically easier for Americans to register to vote by instituting a standard, uniform voter registration form nationwide,” Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in statement praising the high court’s decision.


“This decision reaffirms the principle that states may not undermine this critical law’s effectiveness by adding burdens not required under federal law,” he said. “In doing so, the court has taken a vital step in ensuring the ballot remains free, fair, and accessible for all citizens.”

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