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U.S. Supreme Court Rejects GOP Voter Supression Tactic

Arizona’s 2004 effort to fight ‘voter fraud’ rejected.
 
 
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Another relic of the Republican Party’s voter suppression arsenal was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, when it ruled that Arizona could not require citizenship documents be added to the federal voter registration application—as opposed attesting to one’s citizenship by signing a legal oath.

The case stems from a GOP-sponsored ballot measure passed by Arizona voters in 2004 that was promoted as stopping so-called 'voter fraud.' Under this paranoid theory, people—usually Democrats—were fabricating voter registrations and repeatedly voting to steal elections. 'Voter fraud’ was a cause célèbre among the GOP, especially during the George W. Bush administration, when the White House forced the Justice Department to fire federal prosecutors who would not vigorously pursue these cases.

Needless to say, the U.S. prosecutors found, and repeated academic studies confirmed, that this kind of tampering rarely occurred and was usually caught by election officials. Typically, it only happened in the most local races, where an overzealous family member tried to help a relative where a few dozen votes might alter the outcome.

However, the political attraction of ‘policing the polls’ appealed to Republicans in many states, who often believed that Democrats could only win by cheating. As a result, many GOP-dominated states have toughened their voter I.D. laws, creating new hurdles for millions of legal and eligible voters when voter umpersonation, where it exists, is very rare.

The larger GOP strategy has always been about discouraging likely Democratic voters, especially among young people and in communities of color. Arizona’s Republicans went further than any other state by requiring that would-be voters submit citizenship documents in addition to using the federal mail-in voter registration form, which one signs under penalty of perjury. 

The case has been a priority among progressive voting rights groups for years, because the mail-in federal form is what’s used in grassroots drives. Had Arizona prevailed, it would have been a tremendous change in how elections are run—akin to Florida recently passing (and then having courts throw out) penalties that made groups like the League of Women Voters stop their registration efforts during the 2012 presidential election.

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that Arizona could not pre-empt the federal voter form by piling on additional requirements beyond those already needed to be an eligible voter: one’s age, residency, citizenship, and legal standing (not being a felon or judged by the court to be mentally unfit).    

“We conclude that the fairest reading of the statute is that a state-imposed requirement of evidence of citizenship not required by the Federal Form is ‘inconsistent with’ the NVRA’s [National Voter Registration Act] mandate that States ‘accept and use’ the Federal Form,” the Majority’s opinion said. “If this reading prevails, the Elections Clause requires that Arizona’s rule give way.”

Practically speaking, states only use one voter registration application even though they conduct a mix of federal and local elections. The Supreme Court said that states could cancel a registration if they had additonal information, which is what they do now when someone is convicted of a felony or judged to be mentally incompetent.

They also said Arizona could lobby the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to revise the federal registration form. Some election lawyers said that scenario points to a new strategy for Republicans, who might seek a court order to impose proof-of-citizenship requirements because there are currently no sitting EAC members. But that angle has not yet been tried.

The decision is a victory for voting rights groups who are awaiting a much more serious ruling from the Court. The GOP has also challenged the sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that allows the Justice Department to overrule changes in new election laws and procedures in states and counties with histories of racial discrimination.

That law allowed the DOJ to stop numerous GOP-sponsored laws in the last presidential election, from drawing new election district boundaries that prevented non-white candidates from winning, to curbs on voter registration drives—such as the Florida law, to other efforts to curtail early voting options.

The GOP’s attorneys have argued that America is now a post-racial society that doesn’t need the 1965 Voting Rights Act any more, while the party's legislators have pushed for laws like Arizona’s citizenship requirement—which clearly target communities of color. Needless to say, the party ignores this apparent contradiction.   

 

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's retirement crisis, the low-wage economy, democracy and voting rights, and campaigns and elections. He is the author of "Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting" (AlterNet Books, 2008).

 
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