States cannot preempt federal voting standards such as those set by the National Voter Registration Act, the Supreme Court decided June 17 in one of several high-profile cases the nation’s highest court is expected to rule on this term.
The justices voted 7-2 in the case of Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, deciding that Arizona and other states could not require proof of citizenship or impose other restrictions on persons registering to vote in federal elections using the standard form created under the NVRA, unless given special federal authority.
Federal law "precludes Arizona from requiring a federal form applicant to submit information beyond that required by the form itself," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the court's majority opinion.
Voting rights groups praised the court’s decision as a victory for voters and a reaffirmation of the NVRA or “motor voter” law, which was passed in 1993 to streamline the voter registration process to encourage more Americans to vote.
“State restrictions lost. Voters won, today,” said Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, in a call with reporters. The LWV filed an amicus brief in the case.
“The court’s ITCA decision safeguards the voter registration process from political manipulation and will help block attempts in the states to restrict the right to vote,” MacNamara added.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law was one of several organizations that represented individuals and organizations negatively impacted by Arizona's law, Proposition 200.
“It took seven years and a series of appeals but now Arizona has to follow the law,” said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel on this case. “The Supreme Court correctly interpreted Congress’s clear intent. Congress saw the federal form is a stand-alone, uniform document that simplifies voter registration for citizens, not a document that gives the states license to add burdensome requirements.”
Under Proposition 200, which was enacted in 2004, state officials required prospective voters to produce an Arizona driver's license issued after 1996, a U.S. birth certificate, a passport or other similar document before the state would approve the federal registration application. They can no longer do so. However, those who register through the state, not using the federal form, will still be asked to produce the citizenship documents.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were the only two dissenters. Alito said the court’s decision produces “strange results.” Not only does it create two disparate voter registration systems in Arizona, but it means that an applicant’s success could depend on which system he chooses.
"I find it very hard to believe that this is what Congress had in mind," he said.
Arizona’s Secretary of State Ken Bennett said he was “disheartened” by the Supreme Court’s decision. However, he said the state plans to appeal to the Election Assistance Commission—as allowed by the ruling—to include citizenship proof on the federal form and to pursue further litigation if they are denied.
It is all part of the state’s effort to safeguard against voter fraud, he added.
“Election integrity starts with voter registration. We strongly believe citizenship is the foundation from which eligibility is derived and we will continue to look for ways to ensure only eligible citizens are casting ballots in our elections,” Bennett said in a statement.
But voting advocates said the “misguided” law suppressed the vote of the most vulnerable—minorities, the elderly and immigrants. In two years, the law blocked more than 30,000 potentially eligible voters from casting a ballot, they said. At least 20 percent of those thwarted were Latino.
“Voting is the language of democracy. If you don’t vote, you don’t count. And the Arizona law was a blatant effort to keep some citizens from making their voices heard in our elections,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in the teleconference on June 17.
Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona is the first of two major cases involving voting rights law that the high court is expected to rule on this term. The other, Shelby County v. Eric Holder, will determine the constitutionality of the preclearance requirements of section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires states—usually those in the Deep South—with a history of discrimination against minority voters, to obtain federal permission before making any changes to the voting process.
Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, said she hopes the Supreme Court decision in that case continues in the same “vein” as this week’s ruling in the Arizona lawsuit.
“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," she said.
On June 17, the court also agreed to hear Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc., a case in which plaintiffs allege possible racial segregation and discrimination in housing.
This month, the Court is also expected to rule on Fisher v. the University of Texas-Austin an affirmative action case; and two cases related to same-sex marriage, including a challenge to the federal Defense of Marriage Act.