Supreme Court Strikes Down Arizona Elections Law

  • June 17, 2013
  • By Jake Grovum (2)

The Supreme Court struck down an Arizona elections policy on Monday, upholding the federal government's power over states in elections administration and voter registration.

In a 7-2 decision, the court found that a key federal elections law should supersede Arizona's own voter registration policies. Critics had called those policies unfairly burdensome for the state's voters.

The court majority sided with the federal government in ruling that Arizona's law requiring prospective voters to show extensive proof of ID before being allowed to register contradicted the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which was designed to standardize and streamline elections.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the majority, said that Arizona's law plainly contradicts both federal law and the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to impose elections practices on the states. The decision means Arizona voters, like most others around the country, will be able to register to vote with a simple form that asks voters to verify their citizenship under penalty of perjury.

Chief Justice John Roberts, and justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined in the decision. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.

The case centered on a dispute over Arizona's voter-approved Proposition 200, enacted in 2004, which requires voters to prove their U.S. citizenship before registering to vote.

The Arizona measure quickly came under fire from elections-access and voting rights advocates around the country as unfairly burdensome for Arizona voters, in particular immigrants. Monday's decision, however, focuses on questions of state-federal authority rather than the more politically charged question of voter suppression at heart over measures such as voter ID requirements.

The dispute over the law was on 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 required voters to show documents such as a driver's license, birth certificate, naturalization papers or passport. Federal law, meanwhile, requires states to use a simple form that asks voters to verify their citizenship under penalty of perjury.

Arizona and Proposition 200 supporters argued the state has the right to govern its own elections, but lower courts – and now the Supreme Court – disagreed.

Monday's ruling may not be the end of Arizona's law, however.

Under federal law, states are allowed to petition the federal Elections Administration Commission to go above and beyond the federal law in verifying voters' identities. Many have done so, but Arizona had not. The state could now petition the board to reinstitute its policy. If that request is denied, Arizona could again go to court over the measure.

The Arizona dispute had come to symbolize the growing tension between Washington and the states over elections administration and in particular voter integrity concerns. It is not seen as significant as another elections case currently pending before the Supreme Court –a challenge to the Voting Rights Act.

Monday's ruling is a victory for those who advocate federal supremacy in elections and for those who worked to ease ballot access for Arizonans, especially immigrants.

“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,” said Nina Perales, Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund vice president of litigation and lead counsel for the voters who challenged Proposition 200. In a statement after the ruling, she said, “The Supreme Court has affirmed that all U.S. citizens have the right to register to vote using the national postcard, regardless of the state in which they live.”