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Supreme Court Strikes Down Ariz. Proof of Citizenship Requirement

iStockphoto/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Supreme Court on Monday struck down part of an Arizona law that requires proof of citizenship in order to register to vote in federal elections.

Arizona’s Proposition 200 was passed in 2004 and requires any registrant who does not have a driver’s license issued after 1996 or a non-operating license to provide documents such as a copy of a birth certificate or a passport. The law went further than a federal law that established a nationally uniform voter application form where the registrant is required to check a box indicating U.S. citizenship and to sign the form under penalty of perjury.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a 7-2 majority, said Monday that the state law conflicted with the federal law, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) which is sometimes referred to as the Motor Voter law. The NVRA was enacted in 1993 to establish uniform procedures to vote in federal elections.

Scalia said that a state imposed requirement of evidence of citizenship that is not required by the federal form is “inconsistent” with the NVRA’s mandate that States accept and use the federal form.

Scalia said, “No matter what procedural hurdles a State’s own form imposes, the federal form guarantees that a simple means of registering to vote in federal elections will be available.”

He said if Arizona were to prevail, the federal form would cease to perform “any meaningful function” and would be a “feeble means” of increasing the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in elections for Federal office.

“The Court affirmed Congress’ decision to use a single federal form to help streamline the voter registration process, and prevent states like Arizona from denying the right of citizens to register to vote in federal elections,” said David Gans of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a group opposed to the Arizona law. “At a time when states are engaged 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.”

Arizona’s law had been challenged by groups such as the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) who argued that Proposition 200 put additional burdens on voters.

At oral arguments, Patricia A. Millet, a lawyer for the challengers of the law said that Congress designed the federal form to confront a situation in which “40 percent of eligible voters were not registered, because State procedures and burdens were standing as an obstacle, a barrier in the direct line of accountability between individual citizens and their Federal Government.”

But Thomas C. Horne, Arizona’s Attorney General, argued in court that the state law complemented the federal law and is necessary to protect the integrity of the system. He said there is nothing in the NVRA that says the state can’t ask for additional information. “Congress could have said the form is exclusive and you can’t ask for anything else,” Horne told the justices.

Horne said the federal requirement to check a box is “extremely inadequate...It’s essentially an honor system. It does not do the job.”

A lower court struck down the law. “We recognize Arizona’s concern about fraudulent registration,” the majority wrote in 2011, “Nevertheless, the Elections Clause gives Congress the last word on how this concern will be addressed in the context of federal elections.”

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