An Arizona law designed to stop illegal immigrants from voting hangs in the balance, as the Supreme Court will take up a landmark case this month on whether the state can demand would-be voters to prove they are citizens before casting ballots in federal elections.
The dispute centers on its Proposition 200 referendum passed by voters in 2004 that requires residents to show “satisfactory evidence” of citizenship — such as naturalization papers, a birth certificate, passport or Indian tribal identification — before registering to vote. A standard Arizona driver’s license also is accepted because the state requires proof of citizenship to obtain one.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — responding to a legal challenge by a group of Arizona residents, Indian tribes and civil-rights groups — ruled the citizenship requirement conflicted with the 1993 federal law known as the “Motor Voter Law,” drafted in part to make it easier for people to register to vote, including requiring states to offer registration at driver’s license offices. Arizona appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to take the case, with oral arguments set for Monday.
“It’s a big deal,” said Luis Vera, national general counsel for the League of United Latin American Citizens, a group that opposes the Arizona law. “It’ll change the game throughout the country, no matter what they decide.”
Arizona and other supporters of the law — mostly Republicans — say the citizenship requirement is a valuable tool to combat voter fraud. The state argues that the appeals court should have given more deference to state authority.
“The citizens of Arizona passed a proposition saying that you must show evidence of citizenship in order to register, you show identification at the polls in order to vote, and we don’t think either one of those things are unreasonable,” said Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett.
But the law’s critics — mostly Democrats, Hispanic-rights organizations and civil-rights groups — say it imposes an unfair burden on residents and threatens to disenfranchise minorities, the poor, the elderly and students, all of whom generally vote Democratic.
The case “is critically important to the goal of increasing voter participation in this country and of ensuring the strength of our democracy,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president and chief counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which opposes the law.
Mr. Vera likened the citizenship requirement to Jim Crow-era literacy tests in the Deep South designed to keep blacks from voting.
“It’s just another voter suppression issue,” he said.
But Mr. Bennett said no one who legally has the right to vote in Arizona should find it difficult to produce at least one of the many document options the state gives voters to prove their citizenship.
“I don’t think anyone is disenfranchised with the breadth of what they can show,” he said.
The courts in recent years have upheld several challenges to state laws that have strengthened rules requiring voters to show identification before casting ballots, including a landmark 6-3 Supreme Court decision in May 2008 that upheld a photo ID requirement in Indiana.
And since the 2008 elections, about 15 states have passed laws strengthening rules requiring would-be voters to show identification before casting ballots, leading some Supreme Court observers to predict the Arizona case will go in the state’s favor.
But because the Arizona’s voting requirement centers around proof of citizenship — not just a photo ID — many legal analysts say it’s difficult to guess what the court will decide.