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The Supreme Court Will Hear Arguments on Arizona's Voter ID Law

On Monday, March 18, 2013, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the landmark voter registration dispute of Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc (ITCA).


The case made its way to the highest court after 7 years of litigation between advocates and the opponents of Proposition 200, also known as the Arizona Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act.  The bill, which was approved in a referendum by state voters by a moderately wide margin (56%), mandated that people registering to vote provide proof of citizenship as well as a  valid photo ID.  Prop. 200 also required all public officials providing public assistance to registrants to report violations of U.S. immigration law, and stipulated that those who failed to do so would be arrested and charged with a misdemeanor.


Opponents of Prop 200, a broad coalition including the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., the Hopi Tribe, the League of Women Voters of Arizona, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Arizona Advocacy Network, and State Senator Steve Gallardo, appealed a district court ruling that upheld the law.  Last August, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the proof of citizenship requirement was preempted by the National Voter Registration Act (NRVA) of 1993, which allows all American citizens to register to vote by mail, nullifying the requirement to prove one’s citizenship in order to register to vote.  Congress passed the NRVA to increase the number of eligible voters taking part in federal elections.


The State of Arizona, however, requested that the Supreme Court review this decision, complaining that the Ninth Circuit court had created a new test for when states must yield to Congress in their control of elections.  The Supreme Court granted a hearing in September 2012, and with a hearing coming up on Monday this case is now at the center of the controversy surrounding state Voter Identification laws . 


Over the last decade, an increasing number of states have passed voter registration laws requiring voters to present some form of government-issued identification .  Proponents of such legislation cite prevention of fraud and protection of public funds as their key arguments in favor of voter ID laws, while opponents sustain that voter ID laws severely limit the ability of the poor, the young, and minority voters to participate in elections.  This is due to cost, time, and administrative requirements associated with obtaining a photo ID, which deter many Americans from going through the necessary legal steps to obtain one.   Around 11% of all eligible voters do not have appropriate photo IDs, and a higher percentage of minorities, seniors, people with disabilities, low-income voters, and students.  While it would be a gross overstatement to compare voter identification laws to the Jim Crow laws of the past century, these laws do have the effect of disenfranchising many minority voters and thereby putting candidates that appeal to minorities (most often Democratic candidates) at a disadvantage.  Voters' rights organizations argue that no concern for fraud, illegal immigration, or public finances should have the upper hand over ensuring citizens’ equal access to one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy – voting. 


The central issue that will be decided by the Supreme Court is whether, under the Constitution, states should have the ultimate authority to make their own restrictions to voter laws–  Does the National Voter Registration Act prevail over state laws, and does the Elections Clause of the US Constitution put Congress in a position to veto any state procedure on federal elections?


The ruling, which the Supreme Court is expected to issue in June, will have immediate effects in Arizona and around the country.  If the court finds in favor of the Inter Tribal Council, this could provide the basis to challenge voter ID laws in all states.  Alternately, if the judges rule in favor of the State, the National Voter Registration Act may no longer serve as the best legal defense against voter ID laws.


Among the events scheduled in advance of the argument is a Tweet Chat about the National Voter Registration Act by the League of Women Voters on Friday, March 15 at 2pm EDT.   Please check out our gallery to learn more about the organizations that are monitoring and challenging voter ID laws in the U.S.