CRF Blog

Supreme Court Strikes Down Arizona Voting Law

by Damon Huss

The U.S. Supreme Court held today that an Arizona law passed in 2004 that required proof of citizenship for voter registration is unconstitutional. Writing for a 7-2 majority (on all but one issue), Justice Antonin Scalia described how the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) preempted the Arizona law, known as Proposition 200.

The NVRA requires that all states “accept and use” a uniform federal form (aka the Federal Form) for voter registration. That form requires each registrant to declare, under penalty of perjury,  that he or she is a citizen. It does not require each registrant, however, to provide documentation to prove citizenship. Proposition 200 would have done just that.

From Scalia’s written opinion in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona:

We conclude that the fairest reading of the [NVRA] statute is that a state-imposed requirement of evidence of citizenship not required by the Federal Form is “inconsistent with” the NVRA’s mandate that States “accept and use” the Federal Form…. If this reading prevails, the Elections Clause requires that Arizona’s rule give way.
We note, however, that while the NVRA forbids States to demand that an applicant submit additional information beyond that required by the Federal Form, it does not preclude States from “deny[ing] registration based on information in their possession establishing the applicant’s ineligibility.” [more]

Justice Anthony Kennedy dissented only from the majority’s refusal to apply the “presumption against preemption” to all state election laws. The presumption is that states traditionally have police powers within their own borders, and that unless Congress has explicitly stated otherwise, state laws are not superceded by federal law. As Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog points out, the presumption is “a customary rule” for courts to follow.

Justices Samuel A. Alito, Jr. and Clarence Thomas dissented from the majority on all the issues presented and wrote separate opinions.

For more information, please see CRF’s lesson Making it Easier to Vote vs. Guarding Against Election Fraud in Bill of Rights in Action (2008).