High Court Strikes Down Voting Law In Arizona

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that Arizona has no right to demand documents proving citizenship when people register to vote. In a 7-2 decision, the court said the National Voter Registration Act trumps state law. At the same time, the court told Arizona officials how to get what they want, anyway.

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On a Tuesday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

When the Supreme Court nears the end of a session, you can feel the drama on a day like yesterday. Some big decisions loomed - cases dealing with affirmative action and gay marriage.

INSKEEP: But on any given day, you do not know which decisions will come down. Yesterday, the court ended the anticipation in Arizona. In a seven-two decision, the court ruled that Arizona has no right to demand documents proving citizenship when people register to vote.

GREENE: But the decision did not end the debate. The High Court told Arizona officials how to get what they want if they take a different approach.

NPR's Ted Robbins has more from Tucson.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: The National Voter Registration Act asks people to swear under penalty of perjury that they're U.S. citizens. That wasn't enough for Arizona voters, who in 2004, passed a broader law aimed at preventing undocumented immigrants from getting public benefits or from trying to vote. It required a birth certificate, a passport or a driver's license when registering.

Voting rights activists, like Lydia Guzman, have been fighting ever since.

LYDIA GUZMAN: Creating all of these barriers is wrong, wrong, wrong for American democracy.

ROBBINS: Guzman is with LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens. She and other plaintiffs - including members of Arizona's Indian tribes - held a news conference in Phoenix to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling. Guzman pointed out that four other states have passed similar laws which haven't been implemented.

GUZMAN: This is exciting for us. This is a victory, not only for Latinos, but for Arizonans and Americans across the country.

ROBBINS: Other activists said the Arizona law hampered voter registration drives on college campuses, where people may not carry proof of citizenship with them.

Frank Heredia is field director of Mi Familia Vota. He said even in neighborhood drives, the law puts unnecessary road blocks in the way of voters.

FRANK HEREDIA: We've door-knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors since 2004 and we encounter these stories of folks getting back their Voter Registration Cards, saying that they need more information to provide to the state, to the county to get registered.

GUZMAN: Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett was disappointed with the ruling. But he says the state will accept the simpler federal Voter Registration Form, which asks people simply to swear they're citizens.

KEN BENNETT: But ironically, this ruling says that they're not going to order Arizona - or give us the right to ask for additional documentation if it's not provided on the form.

ROBBINS: The Supreme Court decision was seven to two, with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissenting. But in a majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia all but invited the state of Arizona to try again - by going to the Federal Election Assistance Commission and asking it to permit documentary proof on the Arizona voter registration form.

That's what Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne says the state will do.

TOM HORNE: Well, I would've rather had a straight victory, but I think people who view this superficially, as a loss or an error, it's simply a delay.

ROBBINS: It could be sticky because the Election Assistance Commission currently has no members. But when there were members, it did grant Louisiana similar permission. So, in the short-term, it'll be easier to register to vote in Arizona. In the long term, maybe not.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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