Supreme Court watchers have been waiting each day to see if the Supreme Court is going to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in a case called Shelby County v. Holder. The court did not issue that opinion Monday, but it did issue another important ruling in an Arizona voting case that could lead to new struggles between states and the federal government—and between Democrats and Republicans—over the rules for running our federal elections. While the opinion is a short-term victory for the federal government, it raises more questions than answers and ultimately could shift some power in elections back to the states. In 2004, Arizona voters passed a law requiring people registering to vote in the state to provide documentary proof of citizenship. At issue in today’s case, Arizona v. Inter-Tribal Council, was a very technical question: must Arizona accept a simple federal form, required by the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (commonly known as “motor voter”), for voter registration even though the form does not require registrants to include documentary proof of citizenship?
The Supreme Court, on a 7–2 vote, held that Arizona must accept the federal form. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, held that Congress had the power to require Arizona to accept the form under the Constitution’s “Elections Clause,” which gives Congress the power to override state laws on the “times, places, and manner” of holding congressional elections. The court held that this was a very broad grant of federal power against the states.
At first glance, today’s case looks like a victory for the federal government, suggesting Congress might enact a great variety of laws on some of the most controversial issues in the voting wars: voter-identification laws, tough state voter-registration requirements, and proof-of-citizenship rules. With Democrats and Republicans dividing over these issues, and with hotly contested and bitter elections on the horizon, such laws could make a real difference in razor-thin races.