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What the Supreme Court Did and Didn't Say in Arizona Citizenship Voter Ruling

June 16, 2013 - 6:00pm

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning struck down an Arizona law that requires people to provide proof of citizenship when they register to vote at their local DMV, but conservatives upset at the ruling should understand what the justices did and didn't say.

-- The ruling has nothing whatsoever to do with Voter ID laws, which require voters to provide identification before receiving or casting a ballot. Arizona's Voter ID law was not before the court.

-- The ruling does not affect any proof-of-citizenship requirements Arizona has for allowing people to vote instateandlocalelections.

-- The ruling struck down the proof-of-citizenship requirement only as applied to those who register to vote while applying for a driver's license or for public assistance (i.e., welfare).

-- The justices said it is perfectly all right for Arizona to deny federal voter registration if it has additional evidence (besides nonsubmission of proof-of-citizenship) an applicant isn't a citizen.

-- The justices explicitly noted that Arizona can request the federal government to allow the state to add a proof-of-citizenship requirement to the relevant federal form.

-- Even more importantly, the justices said a federal court can force the federal government to accept any such request from Arizona if the state can prove that a proof-of-citizenship requirement is necessary in order to make sure only citizens are voting.

The ruling authored by Justice Antonin Scalia on behalf of himself, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayer, and Elena Kagan centered around the proper interpretation of the "Elections Clause" of Article I, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution:

The times, places and manner of holding elections for [U.S.] 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 ...

In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), also known as the Motor Voter Act because it made registering to vote easier by requiring states to allow citizen residents the opportunity to register to vote, at the same time they applied for a driver's license or for welfare, by filling out a special federal form.

Arizona insisted that it had a right to impose additional voter registration requirements over and above those specified in the 1993 law, and in 2004 the state's citizens, through a referendum, added the proof-of-citizenship requirement. A coalition of left-wing voter groups insisted that the new Arizona law was pre-empted by federal law.

Seven of the high court's justices, including two of its conservative stalwarts (Roberts' infamous Obamacare ruling notwithstanding), agreed with the plaintiffs.

However, Scalia concluded the court's opinion by noting that the NVRA provides Arizona with a process through which it can ask the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to allow the state to impose its proof-of-citizenship requirement. In fact, the EAC has already approved a similar request from the state of Louisiana

In 2005, Arizona availed itself of this process, but an EAC commission split 2-2 on whether to approve the proof-of-citizenship requirement, which meant that no action by the federal government could be taken. Arizona declined to appeal that ruling, but Scalia wrote that nothing in federal law prevents the state from resubmitting its request and appealing any denial or inaction to a federal court. A judge could then force the EAC to grant the request if Arizona proves that the federal law doesn't do enough to prevent noncitizens from registering to vote, or that the EAC is acting arbitrarily and unfairly by granting Louisianas request while rejecting Arizona's.

In short: Arizona's proof-of-citizenship requirement for voter registration is neither unconstitutional nor unreasonable, but the state's gone about implementing it the wrong way. The Supreme Court has charted out a way forward that should give conservatives and other electoral reformers exactly what they want.

Reach Eric Giunta at or at 954-235-9116.

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