Last week, in a 7-2 decision, the United States Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law requiring a person to submit documented proof of their citizenship before he or she could register to vote.
The long-awaited ruling generally was seen as a setback for conservatives who viewed the law as a way to prevent voter fraud. Liberals, on the other hand, greeted the ruling as a victory against perceived voter-suppression efforts.
In rendering its decision, the court found that Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship requirement did not comply with the standardized federal form to register voters by mail for federal elections that was developed by the Election Assistance Commission.
The EAC was charged with developing this form as a result of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also called the Motor Voter Law. The form, which states are required to “accept and use” to register voters by mail for federal elections, requires only that an applicant check a box confirming he or she is a U.S. citizen.
Writing for the court’s majority, Judge Antonin Scalia said that Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship requirement did not comply with the federal form’s approach that all that is needed for a would-be voter to be approved is to swear that he satisfies the citizenship requirement, under penalty of perjury.
The ruling has ramifications not only for Arizona, but also for other states like Alabama, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee, which all have laws on the books that require proof of citizenship.
In 2009, Georgia passed Senate Bill 86, requiring proof of U.S. citizenship for voter registration. Under this bill, voter-registration applications that are not signed in the presence of the county or deputy registrar must be accompanied by satisfactory evidence of U.S. citizenship, such as a Georgia driver’s license, a copy of a birth certificate, a U.S. passport or several other acceptable identifications.
SB 86 only applies to people registering to vote after Dec. 31, 2009, and stipulates that proof of voter registration from another state does not constitute satisfactory evidence of citizenship. Although SB 86 was passed in 2009, it has never been enforced because Georgia has not been given access to a federal immigration database it could use to confirm the U.S. citizenship of those seeking to vote.
In response to last week’s ruling, a number of federal legislators have introduced amendments to allow states to require proof of citizenship to register to vote.
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and David Vitter, R- La., filed an amendment last week that would change the MVA and allow states requiring proof of citizenship to complete any federal voter-registration form. Reps. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., and Rep. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced amendments that would also address this issue and allow states to ask for additional documents to prove citizenship.
However, a closer look at Scalia’s opinion may give states like Arizona and Georgia an avenue for passing a proof-of-citizenship law without these amendments.
While Scalia agreed that Arizona’s law should be struck, he pointed out that Arizona should have the right to appeal its request of proof of citizenship to the federal EAC since they are the only Motor Voter-authorized body that can request additional information for the federal voter-registration form. If the EAC rejects such a request, Arizona has the right to go to court to appeal such a decision.
While it is important to note what last week’s ruling said, it also is important to note what it didn’t say. It didn’t say that non-citizens should be on voter rolls, and it didn’t say that a proof-of-citizenship requirement is an undue burden on citizens who want to register to vote.
Last week’s decision was about the federal voter-registration form and who has the authority to make changes to the form.
This battle is far from over. The Secretary of State’s office has said that about 600,000 people registered to vote in Georgia for the first time last year. Whether in Arizona or Georgia, ensuring the integrity of the election process by ensuring that only U.S. citizens are registered to vote remains a top priority.
Carter can be reached at 421-B State Capitol, Atlanta, Ga. 30334. His Capitol office number is 404-656-5109.