Voter proof-of-citizenship laws get Supreme Court review

Posted Oct. 15, 2012, at 9:25 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether states can demand proof of citizenship from people registering to vote, taking up an Arizona case with racial overtones and nationwide implications.

The case, which the court won’t consider until after the Nov. 6 election, tests states’ power to impose requirements that go beyond the registration procedures set out by federal law. A U.S. appeals court invalidated Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship law.

That ruling would “interfere with the states’ ability to protect the integrity of their elections,” Arizona argued in court papers. It is one of at least four states — along with Alabama, Kansas and Georgia — that require would-be voters to show evidence of citizenship.

The case presents legal issues different from those in the voter-identification battles that have garnered headlines leading up to the November election. The new high court case doesn’t directly involve allegations of racial discrimination. Instead, it centers on the constitutional roles of the state and national governments in overseeing elections and on a 1993 federal law designed to increase voter registration.

The court will hear arguments early next year and rule by June.

Arizona’s law, approved by the state’s voters in 2004, provides options for meeting the proof-of-citizenship requirement. Acceptable documents include a driver’s license or other state-issued ID, a birth certificate, a passport and naturalization papers.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted 9-2 to strike down the Arizona law, saying the Constitution’s elections clause gives Congress the leading role to set the rules for federal voting.

“The states are obligated to conform to and carry out whatever procedures Congress requires,” Judge Sandra Segal Ikuta wrote.

The 9th Circuit said the 1993 law bars the Arizona registration requirements. The federal measure establishes a national voter application and requires every state to “accept and use” it.

The law “does not give states room to add their own requirements” to the federal application, Ikuta wrote.

The 1993 law was informally known as the Motor Voter Law because of a separate provision that requires states to let residents register to vote when applying for a driver’s license.

The Arizona law was challenged by minority and voter- advocacy groups, including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the League of Women Voters of Arizona and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona. The Obama administration backed the lawsuits at the lower court level.

The 9th Circuit upheld other parts of the Arizona law, including its requirement that voters show identification at the polls.

The Supreme Court hasn’t considered an elections clause case since 1997, when it struck down Louisiana’s system of holding a nonpartisan congressional primary in October, followed by a runoff in November if no candidate received a majority.

The Supreme Court said that system violated the federal law that requires all congressional and presidential elections to be held on a single November day.

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