The U.S. Supreme Court today heard arguments about whether states can require documents to register voters for federal elections above and beyond what the federal government itself deems necessary.
In Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, the court will decide whether Arizona can enforce a law that compels would-be voters to show proof that they are U.S. citizens.
Under the federal National Voter Registration Act, people who register to vote swear under penalty of perjury that they are citizens. Arizona’s Proposition 200, passed in 2004, requires corroborating documentation or else the form will not be processed. The state has rejected over 31,000 registration applications under its law.
Supporters say the law is a way to keep undocumented immigrants or others who have no right to vote away from polling booths. Critics say it is designed to put obstacles in the way of legal minority voters and limit Latino political influence.
Alabama, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee have similar laws, with another dozen states that could join them with new legislation if the Arizona law is not struck down. The Arizona bill is considered a model by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
With election law debates at a fever pitch following the 2012 contests, the court’s decision could go a long way toward defining how much leeway states have to control their voter rules when it comes to federal elections.
“If the Court holds that the NVRA does not preempt Proposition 200, this could invite states to impose all manner of additional requirements, potentially undercutting the congressional purpose of uniformity in voter registration in the NVRA and, again, potentially affecting the very composition of the federal government,” writes John Marshall Law School Professor Steven D. Schwinn on the Constitutional Law Prof blog. “But if the Court holds that the NVRA preempts Proposition 200, the ruling will restrict states in imposing additional requirements and will underscore national uniformity in voter registration.”
An appeals court had previously invalidated the statute requiring proof of citizenship in order to register to vote.
“Congress made a judgment about how to balance preventing fraud with facilitating registration in federal elections, and Arizona cannot overrule Congress’ judgment,” argues George Washington University Law School Professor Spencer Overton on the Huffington Post. “A ruling by the Court for Arizona would undermine not just the National Voter Registration Act, but also other federal voter registration protections for the military, Americans who live overseas, the elderly, and disabled Americans.”
May or Shall?
Today’s arguments centered largely on semantics, as the justices pondered whether the federal law’s provision that states “may require only” minor additional information to process the registration forms excludes them from asking for proof of citizenship.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wondered if the federal requirements didn’t give sufficient deference to states. “The state has a very strong and vital interest in the integrity of its elections,” Kennedy said, “even when those, and perhaps especially when those, are elections of federal officials.”
Some of the justices sounded skeptical that the federal rules were sufficient to safeguard the integrity of the voting system. “This is proof?” Justice Antonin Scalia questioned. “This is not proof at all.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor appeared to speak in favor of the federal law, saying to the Arizona Attorney General, “I have a real big disconnect with how you can be saying you’re accepting and using, when you’re not registering people when they use it the way the federal law permits them to.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added, “It’s not as though the Federal form didn’t relate to citizenship. It did. And it said this is the way we deal with citizenship. Then Arizona adds something else.”
Justice Samuel Alito summed the issue up nicely, comparing the hybrid federal-state registration regulations to the IRS charging different tax rates depending on which form was used, and concluded that it “seems like a crazy system.”
Tagged as: National Voter Registration Act, voter id laws, voter suppression, voting rights