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Supreme Court strikes down Arizona voting law

In a big win for voting rights, the Supreme Court has struck down an Arizona law requiring people to show proof of citizenship when registering to vote.
A voter casts a ballot. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Reuters)
A voter casts a ballot.

In a big win for voting rights, the Supreme Court has struck down an Arizona law requiring people to show proof of citizenship when registering to vote.

The vote was 7-2, with only Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito voting to uphold the law, known as Proposition 200. You can read the opinions here.

The court ruled that the law, passed in 2004, violates the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, known as Motor Voter, which was aimed at simplifying and boosting voter registration. The Motor Voter law already requires voters to attest, under penalty of perjury, that they’re citizens, but does not require them to provide documentation. By requiring election administrators to reject forms that aren’t accompanied by proof of citizenship, voting-rights groups argued, Prop 200 runs directly into the Motor Voter law. When state and federal law conflict, federal law takes precedence.

“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,” said Nina Perales, a top lawyer for  the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which challenged the law.  “The Supreme Court has affirmed that all U.S. citizens have the right to register to vote using the national postcard, regardless of the state in which they live."

Critics of the measure had derided it as the state's other "papers please" law—a reference to Arizona's strict immigration law that was struck down in part by a federal court.

Election-law expert Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, wrote recently that a ruling by the court to uphold Arizona’s law would have 'alter[ed] the state-federal balance over federal elections and give[n] states a greater ability to manipulate election rules for partisan reason.”

In other words, it would make it easier for other states to attach their own requirements to voter registrations forms—for instance age, mental capacity, and criminal records could theoretically become criteria for states to use if the law is upheld.

Groups that conduct voter registration drives warned that a ruling upholding the law would make their job much harder. That's because they typically seek out unregistered voters in malls, community centers, and other public locations—not places where people tend to carry around their birth certificate or passport. So people who don't have a driver’s license—as many students and lower-income Americans don’t—would have been out of luck under Prop 200 or similar laws.

In Arizona’s largest county, Maricopa, voter registration through community drives dropped by 44% in the two and a half years after Prop 200 was implemented, according to court documents filed by MALDEF.

Some voting-rights advocates seized on the ruling to build pressure as a portent for an even more significant voting-rights case before the Court: a challenge to Section 5, a key piece of of the Voting Rights Act protecting minority voters.

"Today's decision is a victory for all Americans. The Court has reaffirmed the essential American right to register to vote for federal election without the burdens of state voter suppression measures," said Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in a statement. "It is our hope that the Court will continue in this vein when it issues the Shelby v. Holder decision.  It would be a false promise for today's decision to promise equal access to the ballot and for an adverse ruling in Shelby to snatch this away."

A ruling is expected this month in that case.