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A case before the U.S. Supreme Court today tests who gets the final say on who gets to vote. It could upend the federal effort to spur and streamline voter registration.
At issue here is an Arizona law that requires prospective voters to provide proof of citizenship before they can register to vote in national elections. A federal appeals court ruled last year that the state law must fall because it conflicts with federal law.
Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The 1993 National Voter Registration Act, known as the NVRA, allows voters to register by mail using a federal form. The registration postcard asks, among other things: Are you a citizen of the United States? Prospective voters must check a box and sign the form under penalty of perjury. The federal law requires state officials to, quote, accept and use the federal mail registration form for federal elections. And the question in this case is whether the state of Arizona may place further conditions on registration, beyond what is required by federal law.
The case is not about laws that require photos IDs when voters go to the polls; it's about the threshold question of what's required for those registering to vote in the first place.
The lead plaintiff in today's case is Jesus Gonzales, a Yuma, Arizona school janitor who registered to vote, or tried to, on the day he became a U.S. citizen. His application was twice rejected by state officials, the first time because, following instructions on the state form, he supplied his naturalization number, but as it turned out there was no way for the state to verify that number with the Department of Homeland Security.
On his next try, he entered his driver's license number, but as it turned out, because he had obtained his license when he was a legal resident, but prior to becoming a citizen, the license, unbeknownst to him, was flagged in state files as issued to a foreigner.
Those challenging the Arizona law contend that these kinds of registration hoops were exactly what Congress sought to prevent when it enacted the 1993 law.
Nina Perales, lead counsel in the case, says that Congress, after examining voter registration problems in the U.S., opted for uniformity and eliminating barriers to registration for federal elections.
NINA PERALES: Whether or not Arizona would strike that balance differently is not really relevant here because Arizona doesn't get to make this call. This is federal regulation of federal elections, and so the Arizona law has to yield.
TOTENBERG: Arizona Attorney General Thomas Horne counters that the federal system is simply not enough to prevent voter fraud.
THOMAS HORNE: It's an honor system. It says if you sign and say you're a citizen, we have to believe you. Well, if you're willing to vote fraudulently, you're going to be willing to sign fraudulently, and therefore it's really no protection at all.
TOTENBERG: Perales disputes the allegation of voter fraud and further asserts that the language of the federal law clearly requires the state to accept and use the mail registration form for federal elections. State Attorney General Horne disagrees.
HORNE: In everyday language, when we use the words accept and use, we allow for the possibility of additional information. For example, in the store the clerk might use and accept and use a credit card but might also ask for a photo ID.
PERALES: Well, registering to vote is nothing like using a credit card.
TOTENBERG: Nina Perales.
PERALES: When the NVRA requires states to accept and use the federal form, they don't mean take the form across the counter, see that it doesn't meet state requirements and throw it in the trash, right? But that's pretty much what Arizona does.
TOTENBERG: The state doesn't literally throw the application in the trash; it stamps the form rejected and sends it back with the reason why, along with another blank form to fill out.
Perales contends that the Arizona add-ons to the federal registration requirements have seriously eroded voter registration among all groups. Of the 31,000 voter registrants who were rejected, she notes, 80 percent were not Latino. Democrats and Republicans were rejected in equal numbers, and a majority of those who indicated race said they were white. Indeed, 90 per cent were born in the U.S.
Equally important, says Perales, the Arizona provisions made registration drives extremely difficult. In Maricopa Country, for instance, the state's largest county, registration from community-based drives plummeted 44 per cent.
PERALES: They can't go to church fairs or to malls. You can see the scenario - oh, you know, Ms. Totenberg, would you like to register to vote? Why, surely I would. Well, do you have a copy of your birth certificate on you or may I photocopy your birth certificate?
Both sides in this case see a loss as having devastating effects. State officials see a loss as opening the door to voter fraud, while those challenging the law contend a loss would gut the federal law, leading to dozens of copycat laws in other states. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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