SCOTUS Are Pro-VOTUS

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), in a 7-2 decision, struck down the Arizona law that required people to show proof of citizenship when they registered to vote in federal elections.

In the majority opinion written by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that the 2004 Arizona state law violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act.  Scalia said the state law was trumped by the federal statute saying that states must “accept and use” a federal registration form. The state law ordered officials to reject the form if there was no accompanying proof of citizenship.   The two dissenters, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, said in their separate opinions that states alone have the authority to decide voter qualifications.

The state law was opposed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and Indian tribes. They sued the state of Arizona and eventually came before the US Supreme Court in Arizona v. The Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. The plaintiffs said it deterred legal voters who did not have the required paperwork from registering to vote.

As mentioned in an NBC News analysis:

Several states said that such a law reduces voter fraud, but civil rights groups said it was an effort to discourage voting by legal immigrants. The case was argued and decided at a time when the country is considering how to change its immigration laws. … Three other states — Alabama, Georgia and Kansas — have almost identical laws and joined Arizona in urging the court to uphold the additional requirements for proof of citizenship.

Therefore, the ruling will also affect similar laws enacted in Georgia, Alabama and Kansas. At the same time, the ruling made clear that Arizona could still have other ways to assert its argument that it should be allowed to ask for proof of citizenship. In fact, Scalia said Arizona could still ask the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal agency that oversees changes to state voter registration procedures, to include a citizenship provision on the federal form in the future and could challenge the current form in separate litigation. “That alternative means of enforcing its constitutional power to determine voting qualifications remains open to Arizona here,” he wrote.  He further stated that the commission already has granted the State of Louisiana permission to require additional materials as proof of identification if an applicant does not have a driver’s license, identification card or Social Security number.

Arizona State Senator Steve Gallardo, a Democrat, stated that the ruling was “… a bit of a mixed bag, but at the end of the day it does reaffirm the absolute right to vote.”

The state’s Republican leadership had said the law was meant to fight voter fraud, but Democrats countered that Republicans’ main goal was to make it harder for minority voters, who usually vote Democratic, to vote in elections.

Nina Perales, vice president of litigation at the Mexican American legal defense group, said the ruling “Sends a strong message that states cannot block their citizens from registering to vote by superimposing burdensome paperwork requirements on top of federal law.”

It was another setback for the Republican leadership, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and her colleagues have tried to crack down on illegal immigrants, even as Hispanics represent the largest U.S. minority at nearly 17 percent of the population.  According to the 2001 U.S. census, Arizona itself is 30.1 percent Hispanic and its Native American population is 5.2 percent.  Last year, the court upheld one provision of the state’s crackdown on illegal immigrants but threw out three other parts, handing a partial victory to President Barack Obama in his challenge to the law. Critics of that 2010 Arizona law argued it could lead to illegal racial or ethnic profiling of Hispanics.

Both Democrats and Republicans are acutely aware of the importance of the Latino vote and in fact are trying to overhaul immigration laws with a bill that would provide 13-year path to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants.

And at the end of the day, SCOTUS has preserved the right to “VOTUS.”