In the ongoing battle to improve access to elections and expand the electorate, civil rights groups have often used the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (and its amendments) as the preeminent weapon. The most transformative legislation to come out of the civil rights movement, the VRA changed the complexion of this country’s elected bodies and increased access to political power for minorities through muscular remedies. However, it is the NVRA (National Voter Registration Act), the VRA’s lesser known, younger cousin of sorts, that has been stealing headlines this week Sandwiched between the VRA and the more recent Help American Vote Act (HAVA) passed in 2002, the 1993 NVRA is sometimes overlooked as a significant linchpin of voter access. Indeed, the NVRA has played an important role in securing expanded registration opportunities for marginalized populations. And, in the face of stringent voter ID laws that suppress voter turnout and shrink the electorate, both offensive strategies and defensive tools are needed. The NVRA continues to prove that it can be effective on both fronts.
Also known as the “Motor Voter” law, the NVRA was enacted in 1993 to help standardize the voter registration process for federal elections which varied widely throughout the states. In an effort to decrease this disparity, the NVRA requires state agencies to give a voter registration application to all individuals applying for or renewing a driver’s license, or applying for (or receiving) services at certain other public offices, such as public assistance benefits. The NVRA also requires states to “accept and use” registration by mail for federal elections. Both of these important aspects of the law were the subject of the NVRA’s prominence this week.
On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a fractured, en banc opinion in Gonzalez v. Arizona in a challenge to Arizona’s Proposition 200 that requires prospective voters in Arizona to show proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register to vote. The NVRA requires states to “accept and use” federal voter registration applications where applicants affirm that they are citizens of the United States and that they meet other voting prerequisites. Although states retain the right to reject deficient applications under the NVRA, the Ninth Circuit held that the NVRA does not permit states to independently verify citizenship status by requiring proof of citizenship for registration for federal elections. The court also addressed important claims under the VRA which others have analyzed here and here. However, it was the NVRA that ultimately yielded a coup.