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What Today's SCOTUS Ruling In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona Means for Voting Rights

Brenda Wright

Today, the Supreme Court released its decision in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (No. 12-71), striking down an Arizona law that created unnecessary barriers to voter registration in violation of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).  It’s a real win, and an affirmation of the continuing importance of the NVRA, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary in May.

The case involved one of the central provisions of the NVRA—the requirement that states accept a uniform federal voter registration application.  Having one registration form that all states are required to accept has been critically important for streamlining the registration process and enabling organizations to conduct community voter registration drives. 

The headlines today are unfortunately a little misleading, such as the New York Times  “Justices Strike Law Requiring Voters to Prove Citizenship.”  The truth is that the federal registration form—of course!—already requires voters to attest that they are U.S. citizens, under penalty of law.  And after today’s decision, those requirements for establishing citizenship will remain.  However, Arizona tried to add to these requirements when it enacted Proposition 200, forcing people to provide documentary evidence of their citizenship along with the voter registration application.  Thus, Arizona was refusing to accept the federal form from some applicants unless copies of these materials, such as birth certificates, were submitted along with the registration application.

Arizona’s law was a huge impediment to community voter registration drives —after all, most citizens don’t walk around with their birth certificates in their pockets, and even the most dedicated volunteer isn’t going to drag around a photocopier.  Demos served as co-counsel to a group of community voter registration organizations, including Rock the Vote, the NAACP, Voto Latino, and others, who filed an amicus brief in the case explaining how Arizona’s law was placing impossible hurdles in the path of organizations’ efforts to help people register to vote. 

The 7-2 opinion in the case, authored by Justice Scalia, came to the very simple conclusion that when the NVRA says states must accept the federal form, it really means that states must accept the federal form.  The simplicity of this point no doubt helps explain why three of the Court’s conservatives were able to agree with the judgment striking down Arizona’s law.  As Justice Scalia’s opinion states, “No matter what procedural hurdles a State’s own form imposes, the Federal Form guarantees that a simple means of registering to vote in federal elections will be available.”  Because Arizona’s law conflicted with that guarantee, it was pre-empted by the NVRA. 

The Court’s decision blocking the Arizona law is particularly important because of the real-world negative impact of Arizona’s extreme documentation requirements.  Community voter registration drives have helped register millions of new eligible voters—including often marginalized low-income individuals, youth and people of color—proving to be an indispensable tool for ensuring that all Americans have an equal opportunity and an equal voice in the policies that affect their lives.  But as Demos’ amicus brief explained, many eligible citizens do not possess the narrow forms of documentation required by the law and, of those who do, many do not carry such documents with them.  Arizona’s Prop. 200 effectively suppressed the vote of these underrepresented communities, in direct conflict with the language and purpose of the NVRA. 

It is particularly fitting that this important decision affirming the protections offered by the NVRA comes almost exactly 20 years after the NVRA was signed into law.  As noted in a recent Demos report on the impact of the NVRA:

Recognizing that the voter registration process remained a major obstacle to voting, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993 in a deliberate attempt to increase voter participation. Fundamentally, the NVRA was designed to streamline and facilitate the process of voter registration and provide uniform registration procedures for federal elections in order to end many of the confusing, and often obstructive, laws affecting voter registration across states and localities. In particular, the NVRA set the first ever national standards for mail-in voter registration, required states to provide registration at public agencies, outlawed the purging of voters solely for non-voting, and established the nation’s first federal standards for voter list maintenance and the first national voter registration application.

Since its adoption twenty years ago, the NVRA has successfully registered millions of eligible voters and led to important increases in voter registration among lower-income Americans.

It’s true that, as the coverage has pointed out, the Court’s decision leaves open the possibility for Arizona to ask the Election Assistance Commission—which has the authority to set the standards for the federal form—to add documentation requirements to the federal form.  Putting aside the fact that the EAC currently has no commissioners, the fact remains that the EAC wasn’t convinced the first time Arizona tried this, and seems highly unlikely that Arizona can establish that such documentation is necessary. 

A decision calling into question whether the NVRA pre-empts conflicting state laws would have been a disastrous step backward for voting rights.  And it would have crippled community voter registration drives.

The key takeaway from this decision is that a strong majority of the Court has affirmed the continuing vitality of the NVRA, and knocked down a restrictive law that clearly conflicted with the NVRA’s requirements.  And, voter registration drives remain alive and well. 

The quintessentially American activity of going into communities to engage citizens in our democracy by helping them register to vote has been pivotal in closing the voting gap between rich and poor, old and young, and whites and communities of color.  Some community groups in Arizona had halted their voter registration efforts as too expensive and impractical in the face of Prop 200’s requirements.  These groups are now free to get back into the game—and others across the country need not fear similar attempts by other states. 

This is good news for voters, and for our democracy.