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High Court Hears Case on Conflict Between State, Federal Voter Registration Law

The Supreme Court heard arguments on a voter registration law in Arizona that requires voters to provide physical proof of citizenship in order to decrease voter fraud. The case pits the state law against federal law, and opponents say it unfairly targets minorities. Gwen Ifill talks to Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

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    Today's Supreme Court arguments pitted a national law against a state law, Arizona's 2004 voter registration statute. The case explores the extent of state powers against the controversial backdrop of voting restrictions.

    Arizona's Proposition 200 requires state residents to provide either a driver's license, passport, birth certificate, or physical proof of citizenship before they can vote. But an existing federal law requires only a sworn statement of citizenship on a voter registration form.

    Supporters say the Arizona measure cuts down on voter fraud by keeping non-citizens from voting. But opponents argue the law unfairly targets minorities, immigrants, and the elderly. The case is only the most recent dispute between Arizona and the federal government related to immigration issues.

    Over the summer, the Supreme Court upheld part of a tough state law that allows police to check for immigration papers. Other states, including Alabama, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee, have similar laws on the books and a number of other states are also considering comparable measures. The Obama administration supports the challenge to the Arizona law.

    And today's arguments on the heels of another case that could roll back a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

    For more on today's arguments, we turn as always to Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal. She was in the courtroom this morning, and is back with us again tonight.

    So the outcome, Marcia, of this could actually tip the federal-state balance on how — who gets to govern how we vote.

  • MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal:

    That's true, Gwen, because the question really before the justices is, where do you draw the line between who has the authority to regulate elections?

    The election clause of the Constitution actually gives authority to both. But where is the line when one crosses or goes too far than the other does? So that's the issue before the court. And it wasn't clear today that it's going to be an easy line to find.


    The reason why this Arizona law exists is because Arizona officials say there's a problem involving illegal or undocumented immigrants registering to vote fraudulently. Is there any evidence — did they present evidence today that that's a big problem?


    No, not today.

    In fact, there was more argument on the other side, that there is no problem. But what Arizona is saying is that there is also a problem with the federal law. The federal law doesn't require proof of citizenship. But the way it deals with citizenship as eligibility for registration is it requires the applicant who wants to register to vote to sign under oath that the applicant meets all of the requirements of the federal law.

    Arizona's attorney general, Thomas Horne, today told the court that that was an honor roll system that doesn't do the job. And he claims and argues that what Arizona is trying to do here is provide additional information that doesn't conflict with the federal law's purpose or objective, which, as you know, was to streamline and make uniform voter registration across the nation and basically make it easier to register to vote.


    This sworn statement, this "I pledge that I am a citizen," is only on federal mail-in forms. It's not any other way that you register to vote. So, there's some inconsistency.


    Well, there is the conflict which brought the case to the Supreme Court between what Arizona is doing and what the federal form does.

    In fact, Justice Ginsburg said during the argument to General Horne, she said Congress expressly said in the federal law how citizenship is to be managed. And that's by the signature. The deputy solicitor general of the United States who also argued today supporting the challenger said signature attesting to — you know, that you meet requirements is something that's common on many forms. And you can be prosecuted for perjury if you lie. So there is enforcement capability here.


    Did the justices seem to be interested in debating among themselves the degree to which this is really about who gets to say, whether it's the federal government that trumps state law or the state law which has the right to make its own state-by-state, if-the-shoe-fits adjustments?


    They were — that was always in the backdrop of the arguments. They were very interested in how both requirements work.

    They focused on the language of the federal law, which says that a state must accept and use the federal form. On the other hand, the federal law also says that there can be state-specific requirements that are approved by the Federal Election Assistance Commission. Arizona's special requirement here wasn't approved by the commission, and a federal appellate court agreed with the commission that it conflicted with federal law.

    And that's what we call running afoul of — that's what we — the result of that is that federal law rules, the state law is preempted.


    But last time you were here talking about the Voting Rights Act Section 5 challenge, one of the things that seemed to come up in court that day was a dispute between Justices Scalia and Justice Sotomayor. Did we see any of that play out again today?


    There is a — Justice Scalia has a long-running disdain for legislative history. And at one point during the argument, Justice Sotomayor referred — said she was going to refer to the legislative history of the federal law, which indicates that Congress considered a proof of citizenship requirement and rejected it.

    And she said — she prefaced her question by saying that there are those who do not agree or believe in legislative history. And at that point, Justice Scalia raised his hand.

    And that did get a laugh throughout the courtroom that day. But it wasn't a conflict, so much as …


    A little dig.




    So, explain to me the extent that the justices debated this today among themselves or that the lawyers did how much a change in the way business is done here would affect other states who may be lined up also with laws which preempt or somehow trump federal law?



    Well, as Deputy Solicitor General Sri Srinivasan said, if the federal law is just viewed as a floor here, for example, if Arizona wins, then he said states can impose additional requirements on registration, and the federal law itself becomes a nullity. And that is the fear of a lot of organizations, from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which brought the challenge, to the League of Women Voters, which filed an amicus brief supporting the challengers.

    Congress' intent here was to make registration easier. And they fear that, if Arizona wins, then other states are going to impose other kinds of requirements, not just proof of citizenship. So that is the real concern. If Arizona loses, there is no change. On the other hand, the final word may rest with Congress.

    Whatever the Supreme Court does, Congress could go and amend the National Voter Registration Act.


    It still sounds like it could be a consequential ruling when we see it.


    Oh, it's definitely a very important case. And it's playing out against this backdrop, as you mentioned, of concerns about problems with voting and vote suppression.


    Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal, thanks, as always.


    My pleasure, Gwen.

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