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U.S. Supreme Court Considers ALEC Voter Registration Bill And Limiting Federal Oversight of Eligible Voters

Arizona imposed stricter voter registration requirements. But the GOP doesn't want to stop there.

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today to decide whether an Arizona statute that imposes restrictions on voter registration conflicts with federal law. The case could potentially decide the balance between the state and federal governments when it comes to elections and voting rights. After becoming law in Arizona, the bill at issue was adopted as a "model" by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

The case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, arises in the wake of the state's efforts to narrow access to the ballot box through limits like restrictive voter ID requirements, and could have wider implications for the degree of latitude states have to regulate voting.

In 2004, Arizona voters approved a law requiring election officials to reject the standard federal voter registration application because it did not include documentation proving citizenship. Like many GOP-led efforts that make it harder for Americans to vote, the bill was pushed through the spectre of voter fraud.

There was little evidence of any widespread practice of undocumented workers voting in state or federal elections, and critics said the real intent of the law was to shut down successful community voter registration drives. The law also imposes additional burdens on naturalized citizens by, for example, requiring they bring their naturalization papers to the voter registrar, while native-born citizens use regular mail. Arizona rejected more than 30,000 registration applications, and the law was challenged by a variety of Native American, Latino, and Asian groups, as well as voting rights advocates.

In April 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the Arizona law is preempted by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). That decision has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Appeals Court Finds AZ Conflicts with Clinton's Motor Voter Act

The NVRA, also known as the "Motor Voter Act," is a federal law designed to make voter registration simpler and more uniform, perhaps most notably by requiring states to accept registration using a uniform federal mail application (sent on a postcard). Arizona's refusal to accept federal voter registration forms without proof of citizenship, the Ninth Circuit held in April 2012, imposed additional restrictions beyond what was called for under the federal law.

The Ninth Circuit ruled that the requirements under the NVRA and Arizona's law “do not operate harmoniously” and “are seriously out of tune with each other in several ways.” The federal law requires states to "accept and use" the federal form which, the court found, is thwarted by Arizona rejecting forms that do not include the additional restrictions on proving citizenship that are imposed under the state law.

The federal court also spelled out a formula for judging when state election laws are preempted by federal law. The Ninth Circuit issued its ruling under the Constitution’s Election Clause, which gives Congress the final word over election procedures. According to the U.S. Constitution, states have authority to decide “the time, place and manner” of holding federal elections, but Congress is also authorized to “make or alter such regulations.”

The Election Clause is distinct from the Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, which is often cited as a basis for federal law preempting state law. The latter, however, generally presumes that a state law is not preempted without clear direction from Congress. Under the Election Clause, the Ninth Circuit found, Congress did not have to provide that it had a clear intention in the NVRA to override state procedures.

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Arizona is arguing that the Ninth Circuit's formulation of the Election Clause was incorrect and that the state's proof of citizenship requirement should stand.