Voting rights advocates are celebrating Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down a provision of an Arizona law requiring voters to provide documentary proof of citizenship when registering to vote.
In a 7-2 decision, the high court ruled that the provision is at odds with a federal law that allows voters to register by swearing on a federal form under penalty of perjury that they are citizens. That federal law – The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 – requires states to allow qualified voters to register when renewing a driver’s license or applying for social services.
Supporters of the Arizona law argue the provision combats voter fraud, but civil rights advocates say it disenfranchises minority and immigrant voters in Arizona, where the number of Latino voters has grown in recent years.
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“State government should encourage voting, not discourage it,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), in a statement. “We need to find innovative ways to make voting easier and more accessible for Americans, rather than coming up with new ways to suppress it.”
Affirming Congress’s Power to Protect Voting Rights
Voting rights advocates say the ruling affirms Congress’s power to protect voting rights in federal elections as legal battles continue over restrictive voting laws, such as controversial voter ID laws, that several states have passed in recent years.
“Congress recognized that voter registration must be made more accessible when it passed the National Voter Registration Act, and the Court also affirmed that today,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “But more work remains to be done. In 2012, dozens of states passed laws making it harder to vote, and more voting restrictions have been introduced this year.”
“These threats affect real people,” said Weiser.
The ruling affirms Congress’s power to pass laws governing voter registration and makes clear that states must yield to federal law when creating their own voting laws, according to SCOTUSblog, a well-respected Supreme Court observer.
The ruling, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, does have one central caveat in favor of Arizona. Scalia made it clear that Arizona could ask the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) to add a citizenship document requirement to the federal form used for voter registration. If the FEC fails or refuses to do so, Arizona could challenge the commission in court, giving the state another avenue for legal action.
Voting Rights Act Still Under Threat
The ruling comes as advocates await another Supreme Court ruling on a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 5 prohibits certain states and jurisdictions with a history of racial voter discrimination from changing voting procedures until they gain approval from the Justice Department.
The state of Alabama, along with parts of Arizona, is covered under Section 5. Shelby County, Alabama has sued the federal government to challenge Section 5, and the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case later this month. Shelby and the state of Alabama – which filed a brief in support of Arizona’s citizenship provision – argue that Section 5 is not applied equally and exceeds Congress’s authority under the Constitution.
Voting rights advocates, however, say Section 5 is crucial for protecting the voting rights of minority voters in historically racist areas of the country.
A February hearing on the Shelby challenge, however, revealed skepticism among the Supreme Court’s five Republican-appointed justices on the need to continue enforcing Section 5 to combat racial discrimination at the polls.
A report recently released by the Brennan Center for Justice found that if the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5, states and jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination could adopt discriminatory voting changes previously blocked under Section 5, adopt new restrictive voting rules, and implement discriminatory voting changes that have been blocked under Section 5 but technically remain on the books.
Under Section 5, the Justice Department has blocked 2,400 voting changes proposed by states and jurisdictions covered under Section 5, according to Bloomberg. Just last year, the Obama administration used Section 5 to block discriminatory Voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina from going into effect.