WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Monday struck down an Arizona law that required people registering to vote in federal elections to show proof of citizenship, a victory for activists who say it discouraged Native Americans and Latinos from voting.
In a 7-2 vote, the court said the voter registration provision of the 2004 state law, known as Proposition 200, was trumped by a federal law, the 1993 National Voter Registration Act.
The state law was strongly opposed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (Maldef) and Indian tribes. They said it deterred legal voters who did not have the required paperwork from registering to vote.
Nina Pareles, vice president of litigation at Maldef, said the ruling "sends a strong message that states cannot block their citizens from registering to vote by superimposing burdensome paperwork requirements on top of federal law."
The ruling will affect three other states - Georgia, Alabama and Kansas - that have similar laws, and prevent others that may have wanted to follow suit from enacting legislation along the same lines.
Democrats say the measures, championed by Republicans, are intended to make it more difficult for certain voters who tend to vote Democratic to cast ballots.
While issuing its ruling, the court made clear that Arizona could still have other ways to assert its argument that it should be allowed to ask for proof of citizenship. That would be the subject of separate litigation, it wrote.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who argued the state's case before the Supreme Court justices, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Federal law requires prospective voters to provide one of several possible forms of identification, such as a driver's license or a passport, but no proof of citizenship is needed. Would-be voters simply sign a statement saying they are citizens.
SCALIA FOR THE MAJORITY
In the Monday's majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia said the state law was preempted by language in the federal statute saying that states must "accept and use" a federal registration form. The state law ordered officials to reject the form if there was no accompanying proof of citizenship.
In outlining the limitations of the ruling, Scalia focused on the role of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), a federal agency that oversees changes to state voter registration procedures.
The commission rejected the Arizona plan, prompting several justices to ponder during oral arguments in April why the state did not file a lawsuit challenging the decision.
Scalia said Arizona could still ask the commission to include a citizenship provision on the federal form in the future and could challenge the current form in separate litigation.
"That alternative means of enforcing its constitutional power to determine voting qualifications remains open to Arizona here," he wrote.
The two dissenters, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, said in their separate opinions that states alone have the authority to decide voter qualifications.
The case began when Arizona residents, civil rights groups and Indian tribes sued to challenge the state measure, which they said discriminated against otherwise eligible voters - among them members of more than a score of Native American tribes across the rugged desert state, some of whom struggle to meet additional requirements.
Arizona, which shares a border with Mexico, has a reputation for passing tough anti-immigration laws that have brought it into conflict with the Obama administration.
The case is Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-71.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Tim Gaynor.; Editing by Howard Goller and David Brunnstrom)
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