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Supreme Court takes up Arizona voter registration law

The Supreme Court building seen in Washington May 20, 2009.
The Supreme Court building seen in Washington May 20, 2009.REUTERS/Molly Riley

Arizona is asking the Supreme Court to uphold its process for registering voters, one that several states say will reduce voter fraud but that civil rights groups insist is an effort to discourage participation by legal immigrants.

The justices hear arguments Monday in a dispute over Proposition 200, adopted by Arizona voters in 2004.  It requires residents to submit proof of citizenship when they register to vote in the state.

The Supreme Court building seen in Washington May 20, 2009.
The Supreme Court building seen in Washington May 20, 2009.REUTERS/Molly Riley

A coalition of civil rights groups says the law "requires naturalized citizens -- predominantly Latinos and Asians -- to surmount additional and unique hurdles to exercise their fundamental right to vote."

The case presents a conflict between two powers granted in the Constitution -- the right of states to set their own rules for electing federal officials and the authority given Congress to change those laws.

A decade ago, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, better known as the Motor Voter law. It requires all states to treat an application for a driver's license as a request for voter registration.

Applicants can also register by mail, in addition to the traditional method of showing up in person at a local election office. Under the Motor Voter law, each state is required to "accept and use" a federal registration form or their own version of it, as long as it deemed to be equivalent. 

U.S. citizenship is a requirement to vote in any federal election, and the federal form requires applicants to state, under penalty of perjury, that they are American citizens. But Arizona's Proposition 200 goes further, requiring applicants to provide some form of proof at the time they want to register.

The challengers argue that it's a burden for naturalized citizens to provide the proper documentation. Using a naturalization document for proof, for example, requires an applicant to show up in person, because federal law prohibits making a copy of it. And they say the state's records are incomplete, lacking data that would allow election officials to accept some other forms of proof, such as any Arizona driver's license issued before 1996.

"Often, naturalized citizens must submit a voter registration application multiple times before they successfully register to vote," says a coalition of Latino and Asian American groups.

A federal appeals court ruled that Arizona went too far, departing so far from the Motor Voter act that the state was essentially rejecting the federal form.

Not so, says the state.  "The requirement that applicants provide additional evidence to support their application does not constitute a 'rejection' of the federal form any more than an identification check at at airport gate entrance constitutes a 'rejection' of a passenger's ticket," says Arizona's legal brief in the Supreme Court.

Three other states have nearly identical laws -- Alabama, Georgia and Kansas. They've joined Arizona in urging the court to uphold the additional requirements for proof of citizenship.

If the Supreme Court agrees with Arizona, states would have broader powers to impose their own registration requirements.  A ruling will come some time before July.