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Arizona can't ask voters for proof of citizenship, Supreme Court rules (+video)

By 7 to 2, the Supreme Court justices struck down Arizona's Proposition 200 as violating the National Voter Registration Act, which requires only a written declaration of US citizenship.

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In Monday’s ruling, the Supreme Court said that under the Constitution’s Elections Clause, Congress has the power to alter or replace election rules enacted by the states. Congress took such action by passing the NVRA and included a requirement that the states “accept and use” a federal voter registration form, Justice Scalia said.

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But the majority justices added that Arizona could still resurrect Prop. 200 by asking a federal agency, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), to supplement the federal registration requirement for use in Arizona with the Prop. 200 proof-of-citizenship requirements.

If the EAC rejects the state’s request, Scalia said, Arizona could then file a lawsuit challenging the rejection in federal court. The state would be able to argue that “a mere oath will not suffice to effectuate its citizenship requirement,” Scalia said.

“Arizona may … request anew that the EAC include such a requirement among the Federal Form’s state-specific instructions,” Scalia wrote in the 18-page decision. If the EAC rejects Arizona’s request, the state can seek judicial review, he added.  

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said he would hold that Arizona possessed the necessary constitutional authority to impose its requirements on prospective voter registrants.

“The States, not the Federal Government, have the exclusive right to define the “qualifications requisite for electors,” which includes the corresponding power to verify that those qualifications have been met,” Justice Thomas wrote.

“I would, therefore, hold that Arizona may ‘reject any application for registration that is not accompanied by satisfactory evidence of United States citizenship,’ as defined by Arizona law,” he said.

In a separate dissent, Justice Samuel Alito said the NVRA does not clearly establish congressional intent to preempt state requirements for voter registration in addition to the one federal requirement. He said the majority justices had embraced a reading of the federal statute that was “atextual and makes little sense.”

Arizona’s citizenship documentation requirement applied to everyone seeking to register to vote. But critics said it fell particularly hard on low-income immigrants who may not have the necessary documents or the ability to easily produce them.

Lawsuits were filed on their behalf seeking to have the measure blocked.

A federal judge agreed with Arizona and upheld Prop. 200, but the full Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Arizona’s documentation requirement was preempted by the NVRA’s less demanding requirement.

On Monday, the Supreme Court affirmed that decision.

“For two decades, the ‘motor voter’ law has made it dramatically easier for Americans to register to vote by instituting a standard, uniform voter registration form nationwide,” Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said in a statement praising the high court’s decision.

“This decision reaffirms the principle that states may not undermine this critical law’s effectiveness by adding burdens not required under federal law,” he said. “In doing so, the court has taken a vital step in ensuring the ballot remains free, fair, and accessible for all citizens.” 

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