US Supreme Court Strikes Down Proof of Citizenship Voting Law

Proof of citizenship law in Arizona, which burdened Latino and Native American voters, has been struck by high court.

By Brentin Mock Jun 17, 2013

This morning the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that an Arizona law requiring proof of citizenship from residents as they register to vote is invalid because it violates the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Through the NVRA, a standardized federal form is provided to all states to keep voter registration uniform across the nation. But Arizona passed a state law in 2004, Proposition 200, that requested additional information such as hard-copy documents proving one’s citizenship, in order to register. This created burdens and barriers to the ballot for many Native and Latino Americans in Arizona. Today’s decision lifts the proof of citizenship law from Arizona’s law books. 

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in the majority opinion:

"We hold that [federal election law] precludes Arizona from requiring a Federal Form applicant to submit information beyond that required by the form itself. Arizona may, however, request anew that the [Election Assistance Commission] include such a requirement among the Federal Form’s state-specific instructions, and may seek judicial review of the EAC’s decision under the Administrative Procedure Act."

This was an important victory for voting rights, especially given that a favorable opinion came from Justice Scalia, whose comments on voting rights lately have been discouraging. In March, after oral arguments concerning the case, Justice Scalia said he saw nothing wrong with requesting a birth certificate to register to vote.  As noted in his conclusion above, he is encouraging Arizona to appeal to the federal Election Assistance Commission board to have them require additional information — like proof of citizenship — for federal registration forms.  If the EAC did adopt such measures, then people across the nation would have to show forms like birth certificates to register, which would chiefly burden people of color.

"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," stated Nina Perales, Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund’s Vice President of Litigation and lead counsel for the voters who challenged the Arizona 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."  

MALDEF President and General Counsel, Thomas A. Saenz, stated, "Arizona, and those states that choose to follow its irresponsible legislating, received a strong message today. The federal government has, through the NVRA, made clear that states may not place unnecessary and unreasonable obstacles to voter participation."

Read Aura Bogado’s story "From Arizona to Montana, Native Voters Struggle for Democracy" here for further background. 

 UPDATE: 11:38 A.M. EST 

The Constitutional Accountability Center, a D.C.-based think tank and law firm that focuses on defending the U.S. Constitution and democracy, found the ruling favorable. Said CAC’s civil rights director David Gans: "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.  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." 

Read CAC’s amicus brief with the court filed with the Brennan Center for Jusitce here


Civil rights law organization Advancement Project also found the ruling acceptable: 

"The Supreme Court’s decision on Arizona’s Proposition 200 is an important victory for voting rights," said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis. "By rejecting the federal mail-in voter registration form and requiring additional proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate, passport or naturalization papers, the statute not only violated federal law but was also misguided. Between the time of the law’s implementation in 2005 and the first time it went to trial in 2008, more than 30,000 prospective voters in Arizona had their registration rejected because they did not include the additional documentation required. Nationally, more than 11 million American citizens lack access to these documents – which can be costly and difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. With the tremendous success of the National Voter Registration Act in boosting participation though the mail-in voter registration form, as well as safeguarding the process against fraud, there is simply no need for laws like Prop 200 that only restrict access to the ballot."