The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments Monday in a case that could upend the federal effort to spur and streamline voter registration. At issue is an Arizona law that requires prospective voters to provide proof of citizenship when they register to vote. A federal appeals court ruled last year that the state law must fall because it conflicts with federal law. The 1993 National Voter Registration Act, known as the NVRA, allows voters to register by mail using a federal form on a postcard. The form asks, among other things: Are you a citizen of the United States? Prospective voters must check yes or no and sign the form under penalty of perjury. The federal law also requires state officials to “accept and use” the federal registration form for federal elections. 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 photo ID when voters go to the polls; instead, it is about the threshold question of what requirements can be imposed on those seeking to register to vote in the first place. Arizona’s law requires voters, at the time of registration, to provide proof of citizenship, whether it’s a driver’s license number, a naturalization number, a birth certificate or a variety of other documents.
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The lead plaintiff in this case is Jesus Gonzalez, a Yuma, Ariz., 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 was 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 second try, Gonzalez 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, unbeknownst to him, he was flagged in the state’s files as a “foreigner.”
Those challenging the Arizona law contend that these kinds of registration hoops are exactly what Congress sought to prevent when it enacted the 1993 law. They contend that Congress, after examining voter registration problems in the country, opted for uniformity and sought to eliminate barriers to registering for federal elections.
“Whether or not Arizona would strike that balance differently is not really relevant here, because Arizona doesn’t get to make this call,” says Nina Perales, lead counsel for Gonzalez. “Arizona law has to yield” because the law interferes with “federal regulation of federal elections.”