Who’s The Boss? Supreme Court to Hear Case Testing Federal vs. State Control Over Elections

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In recent weeks, there has been much discussion of what the Supreme Court will do with an Alabama case challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. However, another case from Arizona, to be argued on Monday, could have a similarly wide-ranging impact on the relationship between the states and the federal government.

The case is Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. and it involves Arizona’s law requiring proof of citizenship for voter registration. Yale law student Skye Nickalls, writing in Slate, has a short summary:

The case began as a challenge to Proposition 200, an initiative passed by Arizona voters in 2004 that requires voters to prove that they are U.S. citizens by showing a birth certificate, passport, driver’s license, naturalization certificate, or tribal document before registering and also to show identification when casting their ballots. Under the law, state election officials must reject any voter registration forms not accompanied by sufficient evidence of citizenship–even the federal form produced by Congress under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which doesn’t generally require the documents Arizona does.

The NVRA, passed in 1993 and sometimes known as the “Motor Voter Act,” was designed to expand access to the polls and increase voter participation by making it easier for Americans to register to vote. The idea was to simplify complicated and varying local rules, making them unified and straightforward. Congress gave a federal agency, the Elect[ion] Assistance Commission, the power to develop the new Motor Voter registration form. The form the commission produced requires voters to swear under penalty of perjury that they are United States citizens, but it does not ask for documentation to prove it. The NVRA says that states can still use their own forms, but they have to meet the federal standards, and they have to also accept the federal form–which Arizona does not without the extra documents.

The groups challenging Arizona’s law, in addition to the Inter Tribal Council, include the League of Women Voters, the League of United Latin American Citizens Arizona, and the Hopi tribe. The groups say they represent Native American and Latin American citizens who are likely to be disenfranchised by the state’s proof of citizenship requirements. A recent study showed that voter ID laws have the strongest impact on young voters, especially young minorities. The groups bringing suit argue that the federal government has the power to set the rules for elections for federal office, including voter registration, and states can’t impose additional conditions for voting when Congress has already established the rules.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed, ruling that Arizona’s requirements conflicted with the NVRA and were preempted by the federal law. In other words, the state butted into an area that Congress controls. Arizona argues that its proof of citizenship law is consistent with the federal requirements, and that the 9th Circuit has wrongly allowed decisions by a federal agency (the Electoral Assistance Commission), not Congress, to pre-empt state law. According to Arizona, the NVRA allows for state-specific election procedures, and the state statute is a legitimate attempt to combat voter fraud and protect the integrity of elections.

The indispensable Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog spots the key issue in Monday’s argument:

In reaching the result, the Circuit Court spelled out a special kind of constitutional analysis for judging when a state vote requirement is displaced by a federal one. It ruled that this analysis is different under the Elections Clause than under the Supremacy Clause. Usually, if a state law is found to be preempted, that results from the operation of the Supremacy Clause. But the Ninth Circuit said that, while the Supremacy Clause requires courts to maintain a delicate balance between federal and state interests, the Elections Clause established its own balance with Congress in a position to veto any state procedure on federal elections.

The Circuit Court said that the usual “presumption against preemption” that applies to protect state laws under the Supremacy Clause does not apply when the Elections Clause is at issue. Moreover, it ruled that Congress need not, in overruling a state on federal election procedures, provide a plain statement of its intention to override the state procedure …

In granting review, after previously refusing to stay the Ninth Circuit decision, the Justices appeared to have signaled their keen interest in the way the lower court interpreted the Elections Clause and its preemptive effect. Secondarily, the Justices may well be interested in how state registration rules work in tandem with, or conflict with, federal rules.

Given that it would have nationwide effect, the Arizona case has potentially far-reaching impact – especially since, depending on the outcome, it would put either states or the federal government in the driver’s seat with regard to rules for voter registration.

Stay tuned.

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