Arizona is once again serving as a national flash point in a Supreme Court case to decide the legality of its law requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote. Oral arguments began on Monday with Sonia Sotomayor and Antonin Scalia squaring off, but experts say the law may lead to a trend of similar state laws if it is allowed to stand.
At issue is the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which was created to make it easier to register to vote and for an individual to maintain their registration. The “Motor Voter” section of the law allows people to register to vote by mailing in a form where they are asked if they are citizens. Prospective voters must check yes or no and sign the form under penalty of perjury. Arizona’s 2004 law requires documentation of citizenship to use the form.
“I’m afraid we’re moving away from the Motor Voter trend,” says Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF). “Arizona seems to be the initiator of these restrictive laws. It’s an act to deter those who are eligible to vote when there is no evidence of any fraudulent voting.”
Alabama, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee have similar requirements, and 12 other states are contemplating similar legislation, the AP reports.
Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Idaho and South Dakota also have photo ID laws on the books while Pennsylvania, Alabama, Texas and Mississippi need legal clearance for their laws to go into effect, but Myrna Perez, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, says proof of citizenship laws are a different animal.
“These laws are more onerous than existing photo ID laws,” she says, adding that taken together, there is a trend of stricter legislation when it comes to voting. “We saw in the last two years a very palpable wave of restrictive legislation passed from coast to coast. Nineteen states passed 25 types of laws that made it more difficult to vote.” Perez says many of the laws were blunted or stopped before the election because voting rights activists and the Department of Justice pushed back.
But Arizona officials say they should be able to pass laws to stop undocumented immigrants and other non-citizens from getting on their voting rolls. Kathy McKee, who led the push to get the proposition on the ballot, said voter fraud, including by undocumented immigrants, continues to be a problem in Arizona. “For people to conclude there is no problem is just shallow logic,” McKee said.
MALDEF’s Saenz, however, says there is no evidence anywhere in the country of widespread voter fraud. He says that when non-citizens are discovered on the voter rolls it’s often found that it was a mistake and they weren’t voting anyway. An analysis by the AP backs this up, finding that 141 of Colorado’s 3.5 million voters were non-citizens as well as 207 out of 11.4 million in Florida.
Northern Arizona University political science professor and NBC Latino contributor Stephen Nuño says these state laws will continue to come up as long as those who propose them see a political advantage in doing so.
“The registration process has always been a ripe area used to pass laws that disproportionately affected minorities,” Nuño, whose research on voter-ID laws is cited in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of the Voting Rights Acts, says.
“These laws are about playing the odds for lawmakers, not about outright barring access. The odds are that those most likely to be affected are those most likely to vote against the GOP. It’s really as simple as that. And so it’s no mistake that these laws overwhelmingly come from one side.”
As the justices took up oral arguments today, Sotomayor came out firing at Arizona Attorney General Thomas C. Horne, who stepped up to defend his state’s law.
“Many people don’t have the documents that Arizona requires,” Sotomayor said, asking him why Congress would have required states to accept a voter registration form if they could then turn around and require additional information like a passport or birth certificate.
“Why isn’t that just creating another form?” she demanded. Sotomayor added that Arizona may object to the fact that proof of citizenship isn’t required, but “that’s what Congress decided.”
Scalia argued that prospective voters who would be willing to violate voting laws would also be willing to violate perjury laws.