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Supreme Court Strikes Down Arizona Voter Registration Citizenship Requirement

By Jesse J. Holland

WASHINGTON — States can’t demand proof of citizenship from people registering to vote in federal elections unless they get federal or court approval to do so, the Supreme Court ruled in a decision complicating efforts in Arizona and other states to bar voting by people who are in the country illegally.

The justices’ 7-2 ruling closes the door on states independently changing the requirements for those using the voter-registration form produced under the federal “motor voter” registration law. They would need permission from a federally created panel, the Election Assistance Commission, or a federal court ruling overturning the commission’s decision, to make tougher requirements stick.

Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the court’s majority opinion, said federal law “precludes Arizona from requiring a federal form applicant to submit information beyond that required by the form itself.”

Voting rights advocates welcomed the ruling.

“Today’s decision sends a strong message that states cannot block their citizens from registering to vote by superimposing burdensome paperwork requirements on top of federal law,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “The Supreme Court has affirmed that all U.S. citizens have the right to register to vote using the national postcard, regardless of the state in which they live.”

Under Proposition 200 approved in 2004, Arizona officials required an Arizona driver’s license issued after 1996, a U.S. birth certificate, a passport or other similar document before the state would approve the federal registration application. It can no longer do that on its own authority.

Less than 5 percent of people registering to vote in Arizona use the federal form, said Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett. The rest register through the state, meaning they will continue to be asked to provide proof of citizenship when signing up to vote.

But because of the court ruling, people can merely choose the less onerous federal form, which asks people to swear if they are citizens or not, but does not demand proof.

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