June 17, 2013 -- Would-be voters in Arizona will not need to provide proof of citizenship before they register to vote, the Supreme Court said today.
The state must, the justices said in a 7-2 split on Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council, accept and use a federal form to register voters for federal elections. That form does not require citizens to prove citizenship. It simply requires that a person swear, under penalty of perjury, that he is a citizen.
Arizona had argued that requiring proof of citizenship would limit voter fraud, but civil rights organizations countered that it discriminated against immigrants. Where American-born residents could register by mail, naturalized citizens were forced to register in person because a naturalization document may not be copied under federal law.
States can use their own forms to register people, but those forms must not require more than the federal form. Several states, including Alabama and Georgia, have similar laws in place and implored the court to uphold the law.
While the court did not do that, the justices did say that Arizona can, in the future, ask the Federal Election Assistance Commission that creates the federal form to include a requirement of additional proof of citizenship in the form.
The decision comes as voting rights activists wait to hear whether the court will uphold a section of the Voting Rights Act. That section requires places with a history of discrimination, including parts of Arizona, to get preclearance from the Justice Department or a federal district court in Washington, D.C. before they change their voting laws.
That law had traditionally been used to prevent discrimination against African-Americans in southern states but has been implemented in places like Arizona in recent years to protect immigrant populations. While opponents of the act argue it is outdated, Latino advocacy organizations say it is still needed because voters who don't speak English as a first language are intimidated, and that voter-roll purges have unfairly targeted minorities.
The highly regarded SCOTUS blog cautioned against reading into today's ruling as an indicator of what may happen with the forthcoming decision on the Voting Rights Act.
"The case today involved a question of statutory construction," read a post on the site's liveblog, "not a constitutional challenge."
Almost exactly a year ago, the Supreme Court upheld an Arizona law that allows police officers to check the immigration status of suspects they think might be in the country without permission.