Today the Supreme Court struck down, by a vote of 7 to 2, an Arizona law that required proof of citizenship for voter registration.
The case at hand, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc, involving Arizona’s Proposition 200, was ultimately a debate between state’s rights and federal power. The majority opinion, delivered by Justice Antonin Scalia, concluded that federal voting laws such the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) trumped state and local laws in regards to who can register. The NVRA requires States to “accept and use” a uniform form to register voters for federal elections, and it outlined three methods of registration: when applying for a driver’s license, by mail, and in person.
The crux of the debate, according to Scalia, was whether states are “pre-empted” by the NVRA. The controversy lies around the phrase “accept and use.” Arizona viewed the phrase as figurative. Voters passed Prop 200 in 2004 with 56 percent of the vote, agreeing to reject any voter application “that is not accompanied by satisfactory evidence of United States citizenship.” (Sufficient evidence included a photocopy of the applicant’s passport or birth certificate, evidence of naturalization, tribal identification, or in some cases simply a driver’s license.)
The “Elections Clause” in the Constitution (article 1, section 4, clause 1) played a major role in the Supreme Court’s decision. It states:
The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such regulations, except as to the places of chusing [sic] Senators.
In the majority opinion, Scalia wrote that Congress’ power as described above, combined with the NVRA, proscribes Arizona’s requirement. “Because the power the Elections Clause confers is none other than the power to pre-empt,” he wrote, “the reasonable assumption is that the statutory text accurately communicates the scope of Congress’s pre-emptive intent.”
Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were the dissenters, taking the side of the states.
“I think that both the plain text and the history of the Voter Qualifications Clause, U. S. Const., [article] I [section] 2, [clause] 1, and the Seventeenth Amendment authorize States to determine the qualifications of voters in federal elections, which necessarily includes the related power to determine whether those qualifications are satisfied,” Thomas wrote.
Thomas also noted the NVRA allowed for some customization of mail voter registration forms for federal elections.
Samuel Alito echoed this sentiment, writing in his dissent that “properly interpreted, the NVRA permits Arizona to require applicants for federal voter registration to provide proof of eligibility.”
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