A key provision of the two-decade-old National Voter Registration Act hangs in the balance as the Supreme Court on Monday hears a challenge that, if successful, could make registering to vote more complicated.
The justices will once again weigh states' rights against voting rights as the court hears the challenge, brought by the state of Arizona, against a provision of the voter registration law that is credited with streamlining the country's voter registration process.
The case centers on a dispute over Arizona's voter-approved Proposition 200, which was enacted in 2004 and requires voters to prove their U.S. citizenship before registering to vote. The law contradicts the federal measure, and the clash has grown to incorporate the broader arguments over state control of elections featured prominently in recent court battles over voter ID requirements and a challenge to the Voting Rights Act.
The Arizona case differs from the voter ID cases, however. It focuses on a requirement that voters show certain identification prior to registration, rather than voting. The Supreme Court has upheld voter ID requirements to be constitutional. It also doesn't directly involve the Voting Rights Act.
At issue is the question of how much proof a voter should be required to show before registering, and whether the state can go above and beyond the federal statute. The Arizona law requires voters to show documents such as a driver's license, birth certificate, naturalization papers or passport. Federal law requires states to use a simple form that asks voters to verify their citizenship under penalty of perjury.
Lower courts have ruled against the Arizona measure, saying it violates federal law governing registration, and that the federal law overrules the state measure.
Arizona and Proposition 200 supporters say the state has the right to govern its own elections and, in particular, to ensure those who register to cast ballots within its borders are citizens.
If the Supreme Court agrees – which many contend should be unlikely, given Congress' general authority over elections administration – it could open the door for more restrictive registration around the country. That would come at a time when voting rights activists are increasingly sounding the alarm over states' moves to limit registration drives, early voting and other measures. With that in mind, advocates have rallied around the Arizona case, even though it hasn't gained the attention other high-profile elections battles have received in recent years.
“Could we have some states that pass laws to make it more difficult if the court sides with Arizona? We could,” says Ohio State University professor and elections expert Daniel Tokaji.
But Tokaji expects the court rule against Arizona. “It strikes me as a quite straightforward case.”
Still, the case has been caught up in the national dispute over elections administration, one that has increasingly hinged on disputes over the federal government's power over state laws. A number of states, some of which are also waging a legal battle against the Voting Rights Act, have filed briefs in support of Arizona, stressing the underlying battle over states' rights and control of elections as a significant dispute the court must face.
In arguments last month in the Voting Rights Act case, the court seemed sympathetic to states' rights arguments against federal oversight.
Tokaji says the United States is generally considered to trail other advanced democracies when it comes to voter registration, but the NVRA has helped.
“We think of our democracy as being well-functioning, but in this respect it's not,” he says. “That's the context here, and that's why the National Voting Registration Act is important.”
Ultimately, the outcome will likely hinge on whether the judges are open to rolling back Congress' power when it comes to state elections.
The court is expected to rule by the end of its term in June.