PHOENIX — Arizona cannot demand proof of citizenship from individuals who use a federal voter registration form, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this morning.
In an opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, the majority rejected arguments by Attorney General Tom Horne that Arizona is free to demand more than the federal form requires.
In this case, that specifically includes a requirement in a 2004 voter-approved law requiring proof of citizenship to register.
Today's ruling specifically requires Arizona to accept — and, more to the point — to register those individuals who use the form prescribed by the National Voter Registration Act even if they provide no proof of citizenship.
But the justices did give Arizona an out of sorts: They said if the state has independent proof that someone is not a citizen, then the fact that the person registered with the national form does not require he or she be allowed to vote.
And nothing in today's decision prohibits the state from requiring citizenship proof from those who use state-created forms to register.
That 2004 law requires both proof of citizenship to register and identification to cast a ballot at the polls. Foes challenged both. The courts sided with the state on the ID at polling places requirement. While that remains a legal issue in some states, foes of the Arizona law never appealed that decision and it was not an issue in today's ruling.
Horne, in his bid to persuade the Supreme Court to uphold the state law, is arguing nothing in the 2004 ballot measure conflicts with the National Voting Rights Act. "Because only U.S. citizens are eligible to vote, Proposition 200's evidence-of-citizenship requirement is consistent with the NVRA's express goals,'' Horne argued to the high court. "Congress did not intend the NVRA to bar states from properly assessing whether an applicant who registers to vote is eligible to vote.''
He acknowledged that federal law requires states to "accept and use'' the federal form. But Horne contended that simply means that form can be a starting point — and that the state can then demand something beyond. Scalia said that contention is illogical.
"For example, a government (decree) that 'civil servants shall accept government IOUs for payment of salaries' does not invite the response, 'sure, we'll accept IOUs — if you pay us a 10 percent down payment in cash,' '' he wrote.
He also pointed out that the federal law says a state shall "ensure that any eligible applicant is registered to vote in an election ... if the valid voter registration form is postmarked'' by a certain deadline.
"Yet Arizona reads the phrase 'accept and use' ... as permitting it to reject a completed Federal Form if the applicant does not submit additional information required by state law,'' Scalia wrote. "That reading cannot be squared with Arizona's obligation.''
The court said it was not disturbing the requirement that those who use the state-designed form — the majority of those now registered to vote — must provide proof of citizenship.
"States retain the flexibility to design and use their own registration forms,'' Scalia wrote. "But the Federal Form provides a backstop: 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.''
What states may not do, Scalia wrote, is demand that those who register using the Federal Form provide everything the state registration form requires. "If that is so, the Federal Form ceases to perform any meaningful function, and would be a feeble means of increasing the number of eligible citizens who register to vote in elections for federal office,'' he wrote.
Secretary of State Ken Bennett acknowledged when the case was argued last year he has no evidence people who are not citizens are registering to vote, either now with the federal form or before the 2004 proof-of-citizenship requirement.
Read more in tomorrow's Star