Arizona has become infamous across the U.S. for its prejudicial anti-immigration laws, and they’re nothing new; back in 2004, the state passed a law requiring people to provide proof of citizenship when they registered to vote. Challenges to this law finally made their way to the Supreme Court, which just issued a decision in the case: no, Arizona is not allowed to place a proof of citizenship burden on would-be voters.
This is huge news not just for Arizona but for the rest of the country. It has broader implications for the bigger discussion about voter suppression in the United States and the sometimes aggressive tactics used to prevent people from exercising their rights at the polls. Civil rights activists are excited about the outcome of this particular case, and they’re hoping it points the way towards more enforcement of civil rights and greater pressure on the nation to ensure that everyone has a vote.
The details of the Arizona case boil down to this: under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, all states are required to use the same federal form to register voters. The form contains the same basic demographic information fields across the U.S., and includes a statement in which the voter must swear under penalty of perjury to U.S. citizenship. That, the Election Assistance Commission believes, is sufficient, because the penalties for perjury are significant.
In Arizona, however, the state added a hurdle by insisting that voters provide proof of citizenship at the time of their voter registration. Four other states, all conservative, have similar requirements for their voters. What the Supreme Court effectively decided 7-2 in the Arizona case was that this was an abridgment of civil rights, which sets the remaining four states up for lawsuits of their own. The decision was important because it marks ongoing concerns about voter suppression and tactics used to keep marginalized people from voting, as many people lack legal documentation but are in fact citizens of the United States; for example, people may not have driver’s licenses, legally-acceptable birth certificates, passports and other forms of identification even though they were born in the U.S.
By putting a barrier in front of would-be voters, Arizona was depriving people of their civil rights. The United States theoretically operates on a one person, one vote principle, though many states also have felony disenfranchisement laws. Across the U.S., the Department of Justice has been vigilant about enforcing voting rights in the wake of numerous attempts to bar people of color, legal immigrants, disabled people, and other historically oppressed classes from voting. Evidence of voter suppression illustrates that vigorous reinforcement of voting rights is still a critical necessity in the U.S.
What this case did not do was address voter ID laws requiring people to present identification at the polls. However, some activists are hoping it may have laid important groundwork for future cases in that direction, creating a possible opening for challenging and eventually overturning such laws. Voting rights activists as well as third party organizations and some government representatives have expressed concern about voter identification laws, arguing that they create an undue burden on voters and potentially create situations in which people are deprived of their voting rights.
We’ll have to see what else the Supreme Court has in store for us this week, but this was a definite victory for voters.
Photo credit: Ken Zirkel