Arizona voter registration rule struck down

June 17, 2013

The United States Supreme Court ruled today on a case from Arizona that could impact elections around the country. The court found Arizona cannot impose its own requirements on federal voter registration forms. 

In Arizona, there are two forms you can use to register to vote; one issued by the state, one issued by the federal government. Nearly ten years ago, Arizonans approved Proposition 200, a ballot measure requiring prospective voters to show proof of citizenship when registering.

That goes one big step further than the federal form, which asks applicants to swear they’re a citizen under penalty of perjury. After the law went into effect, Arizona rejected any federal form that didn’t also include proof of citizenship, like a driver’s license or passport.

“In the first two years of this law, over 31,000 applicants were rejected for voter registration, so the law had an enormous disenfranchising effect," said Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. It has been fighting Prop 200 for years.

“In addition, community-based voter registration plummeted, for natural reasons," Perales said. "People don’t always walk around at malls or college campuses or community fairs carrying their documentary proof of U.S. citizenship.”

Last August, a lower court ruled that Arizona cannot ask applicants who use the federal form for evidence of citizenship. Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed that decision, 7-2.

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin 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.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer characterized the ruling as very narrow.

“The fact of the matter is, is that if you’re going to use the forms [from] the state of Arizona, you will continue to need your proof of citizenship in order to register, and if you use the federal form you won’t," Brewer said.

State Attorney General Tom Horne said more than 90 percent of people register to vote using Arizona’s form.

“The problem is, anyone who wants to vote fraudulently who is not a citizen will ask for the federal form, and for the time being it will not have a requirement to provide evidence of citizenship."

For the time being, Horne said, because the court’s ruling does say Arizona can ask the federal Election Assistance Commission for an Arizona-specific rule requiring applicants to prove citizenship. Horne plans to do just that, but he may not get an answer soon — the Commission doesn’t have any members right now. And Horne anticipates Arizona might have to sue to get its way.

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett said despite the ruling, election officials in Arizona can still take into account information they already have about a potential voter’s citizenship.

“On most of the applications, even on the federal form, people are providing the kind of information that allows the county recorders to verify citizenship," Bennett said -- information like a driver’s license or social security number.

Proponents of Prop 200 say hundreds of ineligible people try to register to vote each year. But opponents say there’s no evidence to back that up.

John Lewis directs the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, one of the plaintiffs in this case. He called voting a basic right.

“This is something that tribes have recognized, and have gone to court before [over]. This is a continuing effort to ensure that we have the right to vote in order to really make this a true democracy," Lewis said.

The Supreme Court’s ruling may have a wider impact. A handful of other states also require proof of citizenship with a federal form, and about a dozen states are considering doing so.

Updated 6-17-13 5:15 p.m.