Supreme Court: Federal law trumps Arizona in voter registration battle

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that the federal government can pre-empt a state and require that it use a national voter registration form, in a decision that punctured part of Arizona’s far-reaching voter-check laws.

In their 7-2 ruling, the justices struck a blow for federal supremacy over the states. The majority held that though the Constitution gives states the power to decide who qualifies to vote, the Founding Fathers wanted Congress to control the “times, places and manner” of federal elections — which in this case includes how states register voters.


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The complex ruling still allows officials to demand proof of citizenship when voters apply using Arizona’s own state form, and said states can reject applicants who they believe don’t qualify. But those who use the federal form cannot be rejected just because they refuse to submit proof of citizenship.

“States retain the flexibility to design and use their own registration forms, 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,” Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the court’s majority.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court’s four liberal-leaning justices, and swing-vote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy all backed Justice Scalia’s findings, while Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Anthony Alito Jr. dissented.

Justice Alito said that allowing two competing ways to register is a “nonsensical result.”

“What is a state to do if it has reason to doubt an applicant’s eligibility but cannot be sure that the applicant is ineligible?” he wrote.

The ruling is likely to be limited in its effects, but it already has ignited a political firestorm.

Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said he has written an amendment that he will try to attach to the immigration bill on the Senate floor that would let states check voters’ citizenship. Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, introduced an amendment Monday that would make it an aggravated felony for an illegal immigrant to vote.

But voting rights groups cheered the ruling, saying more than 30,000 would-be voters had applied using the federal form and had their applications rejected over the past two years.

“Voters scored a huge victory today,” said Wendy Weiser, an official with the Brennan Center for Justice. “We applaud the Supreme Court for confirming Congress‘ power to protect the right to vote in federal elections.”

Still, the groups were not sure what to do about Arizona’s state form, which the court ruled is also legal.

The constitutional question facing justices was whether Congress‘ power to control the manner of elections meant it can impose terms on states in the technical areas of voter registration.

Justice Scalia’s ruling confirmed that.

A top congressional Republican said the ruling should be a warning to Congress to be careful about abusing that pre-emptive power.

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