U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Arizona’s Challenge to Federal ‘Motor Voter’ Law

Voting Rights 03.15,13

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Monday, March 18, in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (ITCA), Inc., a case brought by the state of Arizona challenging the primacy of the federal National Voter Registration Act (NVRA or the “motor voter” bill) in regulating federal elections.

Passed in 1993, the NVRA allows individuals to register to vote using a simple, uniform post-card application. The NVRA notably does not require documentary proof of citizenship but instead requires a voter’s signed affirmation of citizenship, which is given under penalty of perjury. Congress passed the NVRA to make voter registration more accessible to all voters, particularly those who had suffered from discriminatory and unfair voter registration practices.

These goals of simplicity and accessibility are threatened by Arizona’s Proposition 200, a state ballot initiative approved in 2004 that requires election officials to “reject” every voter registration application lacking certain documentation that Arizona claims establishes U.S. citizenship. The affirmation of citizenship, as required by the NVRA, is not enough to satisfy Arizona’s Proposition 200.

Proposition 200’s effects in Arizona have been negative. Between 2005 and 2008, more than 31,500 voter registration applications were rejected due to the law’s restrictive documentation requirements, and voter registration through community drives in Arizona’s most populous county plummeted 44 percent.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was sitting by designation, found that Proposition 200 conflicted with the NVRA, and that the NVRA takes precedence over the state law. The decision was based on the elections clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress the power to regulate the “time, place, and manner” of elections. The full Ninth Circuit later affirmed that ruling.

The case was filed on behalf of several individuals and organizations that represent a broad range of Arizona citizens and organizations whose voter registration activity had been improperly curtailed by Proposition 200.  These respondents are represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF).d the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has filed an amicus brief in support of these citizens and organizations.