The U.S. Supreme Court last week stepped into the national fight over voter identification requirements, and the result won’t please those pushing such requirements in at least 30 states. The justices ruled 7-2 Arizona’s requirement of proof of citizenship before voter registration is pre-empted by federal law. The Dallas Morning News, which praised the ruling editorially, said after the decision the high court was bucking a national trend. The newspaper said a number of states have restricted early voting and voter registration drives, while in Florida, “the League of Women Voters was forced to suspend its voter registration efforts after 72 years because a new law greatly impedes its efforts.” The newspaper noted more than 30 states introduced such legislation in 2011 and the ID cards permitted vary widely.
But if last week’s ruling, which affects federal elections only, translates to other challenges in other states, it would be a major blow to voter ID efforts. Seventeen states have enacted laws requiring the presentation of some type of government-issued photo identification, such as a driver’s license, before voting. The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School said in federal voting those 17 states account for 218 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
Support for such laws usually breaks down by party. Republicans who have sponsored such laws say they are necessary to prevent widespread voter fraud. Democrats say Republicans have presented no evidence of widespread fraud, and the laws are only a thinly veiled campaign to suppress the votes of minorities, the elderly and the poor — groups likely to vote Democratic.
In an unusual coalition at the Supreme Court, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia wrote the majority opinion, and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s four liberals. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a separate opinion dissenting and joining in part, but concurring in the judgment.
The Arizona case pits the state requirement for proof of U.S. citizenship against the federal “Motor Voter” law that requires only filling out a form to register for federal elections. In 2004, Arizona voters adopted Proposition 200, a ballot initiative designed in part “to combat voter fraud by requiring voters to present proof of citizenship when they register to vote and to present identification when they vote on election day.”