Submitted by Brendan Fischer on
In a 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down an Arizona statute that imposes restrictions on voter registration, finding it conflicts with federal law. After becoming law in Arizona, the legislation at issue was adopted as a "model" by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
The decision in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona reaffirmed Congress' power under the Elections Clause to determine when, where, and how elections are held.
An Arizona law requiring that voters show proof of citizenship to register to vote, wrote Justice Antonin Scalia for the seven justice majority, conflicted with the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and was therefore preempted.
Arizona Bill Adopted as ALEC "Model"
The Arizona law at issue was passed in 2004 as Proposition 200 and required election officials to reject voter registration forms that did not include certain forms of documentation proving citizenship. Like many GOP-led efforts that make it harder for Americans to vote, Proposition 200 was promoted as a tool to prevent "voter fraud," despite little evidence of undocumented workers voting regularly in state or federal elections. Civil rights groups claimed the real intent of the law was to shut down successful community voter registration drives by imposing new burdens on registration; indeed, at least 30,000 voter registrations were rejected as a result of the law.
The law was another piece of anti-immigrant legislation supported by former Arizona state Senator (and then-ALEC member) Russell Pearce. After Proposition 200 became Arizona law, Pearce brought the bill to ALEC, and in 2008 the ALEC Public Safety and Elections Task Force adopted Proposition 200 as a "model" they titled the Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.
After being adopted as an ALEC "model," Alabama, Georgia and Kansas passed nearly identical versions of the bill, and other states have introduced it.
In 2009, the Public Safety and Elections Task Force adopted a "model" Voter ID Act, and versions of that legislation were subsequently introduced in a majority of states.
Pearce was also behind Arizona's controversial SB 1070 law that required local law enforcement enforce federal immigration law. That same ALEC task force -- whose corporate members included representatives of the private prison and private bail industries -- approved the bill that became SB 1070 as an ALEC model in December 2009, before it was introduced in the Arizona legislature, in 2010. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down many parts of that law in June of 2012.
In 2011, Pearce was recalled by his constituents, largely because of his cozy relationships with out-of-state special interests and his controversial position on immigration.
Now-former State Senator Pearce nonetheless weighed-in on the Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona case with an amicus brief, as did his ally, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, among others.
Court Reaffirms Congress' Elections Clause Authority
The NVRA, also known as the "Motor Voter Act," is a federal law designed to make voter registration simpler and more uniform, perhaps most notably by requiring states to accept registration using a uniform federal mail application (sent on a postcard). Arizona's refusal to accept federal voter registration forms without proof of citizenship, the Court held, imposed additional restrictions beyond what was called for under the federal law.
"We conclude that the fairest reading of the statute is that a state-imposed requirement of evidence of citizenship not required by the Federal Form is 'inconsistent with' the NVRA's mandate that States 'accept and use' the Federal Form," Justice Scalia wrote for the majority.
The Constitution's Supremacy Clause generally presumes that a state law is not preempted without clear direction from Congress, and Arizona argued that Congress had not provided such direction in the NVRA. But because Congress passed the NVRA using its authority in the Constitution's Election Clause, there was no such requirement that it declare an intention to override state procedures.
The Elections Clause gives Congress the final word over election procedures: states have authority to decide "the time, place and manner" of holding federal elections, but Congress is authorized to "make or alter such regulations." However, the Court did hold that Congress cannot set "voter qualifications" for federal elections, which may have wider implications for voting rights.
The decision is being celebrated among voting rights advocates.
"Today's decision sends a strong message that states cannot block their citizens from registering to vote by superimposing burdensome paperwork requirements on top of federal law," Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and lead counsel for the voters who challenged the law.
"The Court's ITCA decision safeguards the voter registration process from political manipulation and will help block attempts in the states to restrict the right to vote," said Elisabeth MacNamara, President of the League of Women Voters.