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U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Voter Registration Law

The Supreme Court has struck down requirements demanding proof of citizenship during voter registration. Credit: Korean Resource Centre/CC by 2.0

WASHINGTON, Jun 17 2013 (IPS) - In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday struck down voter application requirements demanding proof of citizenship, making it much easier for naturalised citizens to register to vote.

The decision looked at the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, which does not require proof of citizenship, as well as state-level legislation in the western state of Arizona. In a 7-2 decision, the nine Supreme Court justices ruled the state’s voting requirement, which has been in effect for two years, unconstitutional.

“The anti-immigration sentiment [in Arizona] is unconstitutional and people aren’t going to tolerate it,” Petra Falcon, executive director of Promise Arizona, an Arizona-based immigrant advocacy group, told IPS. “We need decision-makers that appreciate the diversity in our communities.”

The 1993 Voter Registration Act, known as the “Motor Voter” law, requires applicants to sign an oath, punishable as perjury, stating that they are U.S. citizens. But it does not require any proof.

“It’s extremely inadequate,” Arizona Attorney General Thomas Horne, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said of the 1993 legislation in March. “It’s essentially an honour system. It does not do the job.”

Yet others have applauded the Motor Voter law, with civil liberties advocates suggesting that the legislation significantly eased voter registration by issuing a standard registration form nationwide.

Arizona went a step further, however, by requiring all first-time applicants to provide citizenship in the form of a birth certificate, a passport or naturalisation documents, without which the application would be rejected.

Several other states, including Alabama, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee, have similar requirements, and Monday’s ruling will now directly affect those laws.

“This decision reaffirms the principle that states may not undermine this critical law’s effectiveness by adding burdens not required under federal law,” Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Voting Rights Project, said Monday.

“The court has taken a vital step in ensuring the ballot remains free, fair and accessible for all citizens,” McDonald added.

Those opposed to Proposition 200, as Arizona’s law was called, highlighted the enormous problem it creates for naturalised citizens. Using a naturalisation document as proof of citizenship requires applicants to register in person as opposed to through the mail, because federal law prohibits the copying of naturalisation documents.

The ACLU estimates that about 13 million people in the United States lack documentation to prove their citizenship. It also estimates that 31,000 Arizona residents who attempted to register during the two years the law has been in effect were denied, 90 percent of them born in the United States. And in two years in a single Arizona county, community voter registration reportedly dropped by 44 percent.

Advocates say Thursday’s ruling offers the opportunity to start healing some of those wounds.

“Justice is on our side,” Falcon told IPS. “We are working towards rebuilding a united Arizona and one Arizona, rather than a divided Arizona.”

Attempts to tighten requirements

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, emphasised that Arizona is allowed to ask the federal government to include the extra documents as a state-specific voter-registration requirement. He also noted that states can take the federal government to court if it refuses to do so.

State officials can also check other information on the voter registration form and refuse to register the applicant if it turns out they are not citizens.

Conservatives’ response to the ruling has already been fierce.

“This hole in federal statutory laws allows non-citizens to register and thereby encourages voter fraud,” Senator Ted Cruz, from Texas, said Monday. Cruz also announced that he would file an amendment to currently pending immigration legislation to allow states to require identification before registering voters.

Monday’s decision comes as voting rights activists eagerly await another race-based voting case before the Supreme Court. This case deals with a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires states with a history of discrimination, including Arizona, to receive clearance from the Justice Department before they change their voting laws.

That decision is expected within days.

Arizona has been in the vanguard of a new spate of conservative-led state governments attempting to crack down on illegal immigration. Last year, the Supreme Court also decided that a number of laws in Arizona were unconstitutional.

Yet the most controversial one, a law requiring police officers to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant, was allowed to stand. Critics say the court’s decision greenlighted racial profiling.

“This is a country of immigrants but also of U.S. values,” said Falcon. “We want to embrace those values rather than run away from them and abuse them.”

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  • Stephen Erwin

    In fact the Court was clearly wrong legally..Article one section 2 clearly gives voter requirements to the states. The Court cites section 4 which gives Congress power over the actual election as giving it authority over voter requirements which it does not.

    However, the Seventeenth Amendment trumps the argument above by clearly saying that the states have authority over voter requirements.

    It is a sad day when seven justices choose past precedent over the clear words of the Constitution.

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