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Opinion: Supreme Court Takes on Controversial AZ Voter ID Law

Tuesday, October 16, 2012 - 12:55 PM

A supporter of US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney watches polling results on his computer on February 28, 2012 at his victory party celebration in Phoenix, Arizona. A supporter of Mitt Romney watches polling results on his at his victory party in Arizona. (Don Emmert/Getty)

So the Voter ID issue has just intensified, if that's possible. The Supreme Court will enter the fray after the justices agreed to consider whether Arizona can require proof of citizenship when people register to vote.

The rule, which was blocked by a lower court, won't be in effect for the Nov. 6 election. In June, the justices refused to lift the lower court's order during the state's appeal process.

This suit is a bit different than some other Voter ID cases we've seen this election cycle because it goes to proof of citizenship at registration rather than at the polls themselves. But this case could further define the line separating federal and state control of election procedures, a conflict rooted in the very foundation of the republic.

The case before the court involves a law passed by Arizona voters in 2004. It requires residents to provide proof of U.S. citizenship when they register to vote. The law was passed on the context of great controversy in the state about immigration policy and the status and rights of citizens versus so-called "illegal aliens."

Organizations representing Hispanic and Native American voters sued, arguing the requirement violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Known to most Americans as The Motor-Voter Law, it provides that citizens can register through a universal form, in addition to those published by states.

The best example of this is applying for, or renewing a driver's license. The federal form is a simple postcard. There is no place to include photocopies of birth certificates or other documentation Arizona considers necessary evidence of citizenship. The obvious goal of Motor-Voter is to ensure greater access to voter registration. Apparently, not everyone in Arizona supports this goal.

In April, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that while Arizona could require proof of citizenship as to it's own voter registration process, it could not impose additional requirements on the federal Motor-Voter registration: The Arizona provision undermines Congress's "goal of streamlining the registration process," Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote for the Ninth Circuit.

Now, Arizona argues that Motor-Voter sets minimum registration requirements and that states are free to ADD supplemental proof. But the plaintiffs argue that the simpler motor voter forms are helpful when conducting registration drives, because few people are carrying proof of citizenship when they pass by registration tables on the street.

The Supreme Court's most recent significant ruling on Voter ID came in 2008, when it upheld an Indiana law requiring voters to present ID before casting ballots at polling places. Justice Stevens explained that, given the state's interests, including preventing voter fraud, the challengers to the requirements had not shown that they were too burdensome. Since then, lower courts have looked at the specifics of different voter ID laws to decide whether they imposed substantial burdens on the right to vote.

Supreme Court arguments have yet to be scheduled and won't take place until after Election Day.

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