June 17 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Supreme Court threw out an Arizona law requiring evidence of citizenship when people register to vote, in a victory for minority-rights advocates and the Obama administration.
The justices said Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship law runs afoul of a federal statute that sets registration requirements. The 7-2 ruling limits the role played by the states in national elections and raises questions about similar laws in three other states -- Alabama, Georgia and Kansas.
A U.S. appeals court had invalidated the Arizona law, pointing to a 1993 federal statute that says states must “accept and use” a standard registration document known as the federal form. That form instructs prospective voters to swear that they are citizens, under penalty of perjury.
Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said the federal government has broad authority to displace state election rules. He pointed to the U.S. Constitution’s elections clause, which says Congress may override states in establishing the “times, places and manner of holding elections.”
“The states’ role in regulating congressional elections -- while weighty and worthy of respect -- has always existed subject to the express qualification that it terminates according to federal law,” Scalia wrote.
The Obama administration contended that the federal statute was designed to streamline the registration process and that the Arizona law would undermine that goal. The state law, the product of a 2004 ballot initiative, was challenged by groups including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the League of Women Voters of Arizona and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.
Arizona argued that the 1993 law leaves room for states to require applicants to submit additional information along with the federal form. The state said the federal form doesn’t do enough to keep non-citizens from voting.
The 1993 law lets states use their own voter-registration forms as long as they also accept the federal form. The Supreme Court ruling doesn’t prevent Arizona from continuing to demand proof of citizenship from would-be voters when they use the state registration application.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented from the court ruling. Justice Anthony Kennedy agreed with Scalia on the result, while saying he went too far in limiting state authority.
Scalia said Arizona could pursue a different avenue for requiring proof of citizenship. Under the federal law, states may ask the Elections Assistance Commission, the agency that developed the federal form, to require additional documentation from would-be voters in particular states.
In 2005 the agency, dividing 2-2, failed to act on Arizona’s request to require proof of citizenship as a state-specific requirement. Arizona didn’t challenge that rebuff in court.
Scalia said Arizona could renew its request with the commission. He said the panel had already approved a similar request from Louisiana.
That procedure provides “a pathway to get an ultimate victory,” Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said in an interview. “Once we go through these steps the Supreme Court has set out, I believe we will be able to require evidence of citizenship for people using the federal form.”
Such an effort isn’t likely to succeed, said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
“Arizona would then have to actually bring forward facts and evidence showing that it needed these documentation requirements,” Perales said. She said the state hadn’t shown that any non-citizens had attempted to register.
“This is a strong decision protecting voters,” said Elisabeth MacNamara, president of the League of Women Voters, another group involved in the challenge.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp expressed disappointment in the ruling, saying in an e-mailed statement that he would work with other state officials and lawmakers to ensure that undocumented immigrants don’t register to vote.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s spokesman, Matthew Benson, said the office is reviewing the ruling. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley had no comment, according to spokesman Jeremy King. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach’s office is reviewing the decision, said aide Kay Curtis.
The ruling may carry political implications beyond its legal ones, raising questions about the Republican Party’s position on voting laws as its leaders try to reach out to minority voters.
The 2012 Republican Party platform endorsed laws like Arizona’s, calling them an important way of guarding against the “political poison” of voter fraud.
Republican Party officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on the court’s decision.
Will Crossley, the Democratic National Committee’s counsel and director of voter protection, said the party is pleased with the decision, calling it consistent with its “goal of ensuring that the process for voting remains open and fair for all Americans.”
The ruling comes as Congress prepares to consider legislation that would make the most significant changes to U.S. immigration law in a generation.
The high court case didn’t directly involve allegations of racial or ethnic discrimination, though civil-rights groups pressed those contentions earlier in the litigation. The dispute presented legal issues different from those in the voter-identification battles that garnered headlines before last year’s election.
Under Arizona’s law, those seeking to register could prove citizenship by presenting copies of a driver’s license or state-issued identification. The state also would accept a birth certificate, a passport or naturalization papers. Arizona voters approved the measure in 2004.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down part of the law while upholding its requirement that voters show identification at the polls.
The 1993 federal law was informally known as the Motor Voter Law because of a provision that lets people register when applying for a driver’s license. That provision wasn’t at issue in the Supreme Court case.
Clarissa Martínez de Castro, director of immigration and civic engagement at the National Council of La Raza, the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the U.S., applauded the court’s action in striking down the Arizona law. She said the ruling protects against the very “inequities” the Motor Voter Law had been enacted to prevent.
“Minorities, the young and the elderly would have been disproportionately impacted if the law were allowed to stand,” she said in a statement.
The case is Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, 12-71.
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