Friday, March 15, 2013

Can States Require Proof of Citizenship to Vote?

Arizona is once again before the Supreme Court, on Monday, with a major federalism case, this time testing whether federal law preempts the state's efforts to add a proof-of-citizenship requirement, over and above the federal requirement, to its voter registration application.  The case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, asks whether the preemption standard under the Elections Clause is the same as the ordinary preemption standard under the Supremacy Clause, and whether the National Voter Registration Act preempts Arizona's proof-of-citizenship requirement.  

The former issue--going to the standard of preemption under the Elections Clause--is an important one.  The Court puts a thumb on the scale against preemption in ordinary Supremacy Clause preemption cases.  This case will tell us whether states get that thumb in Elections Clause cases, too.  If so, and if the Court rules Arizona's proof-of-citizenship requirement not preempted, we're likely to see certain states move toward more requirements like Arizona's, making it tougher for certain citizens to vote.

Here's an excerpt from my preview of the case in the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases (with permission):


 May Arizona require applicants for voter registration to provide additional evidence of U.S. citizenship without conflicting with the requirements of the National Voter Registration Act?


Congress enacted the National Voter Registration Act, the “NVRA,” or the “Motor Voter Act,” in 1993 in order to enhance voter participation by eligible citizens in federal elections while at the same time protecting the integrity of the electoral process. To these ends, the NVRA requires states to accept three kinds of registration applications from would-be voters in federal elections. First, the NVRA requires states to treat any application for a driver’s license as an application for voter registration. Next, it requires states to accept mail-in applications. Finally, the NVRA requires states to accept in-person applications at sites designated by state law.

In connection with these three methods, the NVRA provides for the creation of certain voter registration applications. Thus the NVRA requires states to create a combined driver’s license and voter registration application form commonly called the “Motor Voter Form.” (The Motor Voter Form is not at issue in this case.) The NVRA also directs the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the “EAC,” to create the Federal Form, a nationally uniform voter application that applicants can use to register by mail or in person at designated locations. The NVRA requires that the Federal Form “shall include” a statement that specifies each eligibility requirement (including citizenship), contains an attestation of eligibility, and requires the applicant’s signature. It says that the Federal Form “may not include any requirement for notarization or other formal authentication.” And it says that the Federal Form “may require only such identifying information . . . and other information as is necessary to enable the appropriate state elections official to assess the eligibility of the applicant.” The NVRA requires states to “accept and use” the Federal Form, but it also allows a state to “develop and use” its own form, so long as the state form meets all of the NVRA criteria for the Federal Form. (Even if a state develops and uses its own form, however, the NVRA still requires every state to “accept and use” the Federal Form.) Moreover, a state may ask the EAC to add state-specific instructions to the Federal Form.

The EAC-created Federal Form specifies each eligibility requirement, including U.S. citizenship, but does not, by its plain terms, require proof of citizenship. Thus the Federal Form requires an applicant to tick a box that says that the applicant is a U.S. citizen and to swear or affirm, by signature, that he or she is a U.S. citizen and that “the applicant, to the best of his or her knowledge and belief, meets each of his or her state’s specific eligibility requirements.” The Federal Form’s state-specific instructions for Arizona require an applicant to include the number of his or her valid Arizona driver’s license or non-operating identification license, or the last four digits of his or her Social Security number. The state-specific instructions say that if an applicant does not have these numbers, “[a] unique identifying number will be assigned by the Secretary of State.” (The Federal Form, with Arizona’s state-specific instructions, is here.) In short, the Federal Form relies on an applicant’s attestation, without further proof, to determine U.S. citizenship. Arizona’s state-specific instructions only require proof if an applicant has an Arizona driver’s license or identification license, or a Social Security number.

In 2004, Arizona sought to add a proof-of-citizenship requirement. Thus Arizona voters approved Proposition 200, requiring applicants for voter registration to provide evidence of U.S. citizenship beyond the attestation requirement and the state-specific instructions in the Federal Form. In particular, Proposition 200 says that an applicant must provide his or her driver’s license number, non-operating identification number, a number associated with Native American tribal status, his or her certificate of naturalization number, or a legible photocopy of his or her U.S. birth certificate or passport. (Proposition 200 also requires registered voters to present identification in order to cast their ballots at the polls. The voter-ID component of Proposition 200 is not at issue in this case.) By its terms, this proof-of-citizenship requirement applies to both the federal form and to Arizona’s state form.

About a year after Arizona voters enacted Proposition 200, the U.S. Department of Justice precleared it under the Voting Rights Act. Arizona then asked the EAC to include its proof-of-citizenship requirement on the state-specific instructions on the federal form. The EAC declined. (The Executive Director of the EAC initially declined the request, stating that the NVRA preempted the requirement. The full EAC later upheld this decision.)

Nevertheless, Arizona implemented the new proof-of-citizenship requirements in Proposition 200 with respect to its state-specific voter registration application form and with respect to the Federal Form. As to the state-specific form, Arizona now specifically requires the proof of citizenship specified in Proposition 200. Its instructions say that an applicant must provide a driver’s license or non-operating identification license number, or, if those are not available, a birth certificate, U.S. passport, naturalization documents or an alien registration number, or proof of Native American Indian tribal membership. The instructions say that without this proof of citizenship, “the form will be rejected.” (Arizona’s state specific form is here.) As to the Federal Form (which, again, did not change in the wake of Proposition 200), Arizona officials now ask Federal Form applicants for evidence of citizenship pursuant to Proposition 200 whenever their Federal Form does not include such evidence of citizenship.

Just to be clear: Before Proposition 200, Arizona required only a driver’s license or non-operating identification license, or, when those were not available, a “unique identifying number . . . assigned by the Secretary of State,” in order to register to vote. After Proposition 200, Arizona now requires a driver’s license or non-operating identification license, or, when those are not available, a birth certificate, U.S. passport, naturalization documents or an alien registration number, or proof of Native American Tribal membership. Thus Proposition 200 added a significant proof-of-citizenship requirement, but only for those applicants who do not have a driver’s license or non-operating identification license.

Soon after Proposition 200 passed, two groups of plaintiffs sued, arguing, among other things, that the new proof-of-citizenship requirements were preempted by the NVRA. In particular, the plaintiffs argued that the new proof-of-citizenship requirements went beyond the requirements of the NVRA in a way that conflicted with the NVRA. In a first round of litigation, the plaintiffs’ case went to the Supreme Court on preliminary motions, and the Court remanded it for a determination on the merits. In the second round, on remand, the district court ruled in favor of Arizona on the plaintiffs’ preemption claim. The Ninth Circuit reversed. This appeal followed.


This case tests the boundary between congressional authority and state authority in the special context of regulation of federal elections. That boundary is set in the Constitution’s Elections Clause: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.” In other words, states get the first crack at regulating the mechanics of federal elections, but Congress has ultimate authority to override, or preempt, state regulation. The framers gave Congress this special power over federal elections in order to safeguard against potential state efforts, through manipulation of their election laws, to undermine the national government. (At the extreme, the framers were concerned that states could frustrate the very creation of the national government by neglecting to hold federal elections.) Here, the Elections Clause governs, because Congress enacted the NVRA pursuant to its Elections Clause power.

The Supreme Court first examined congressional authority to preempt state law under the Elections Clause in Ex Parte Siebold, 100 U.S. 371 (1879). The Court in that case said that federal law preempts state law whenever they conflict: “the laws of the State, in so far as they are inconsistent with the laws of Congress on the same subject, cease to have effect as laws.” Over a century later, the Court in Foster v. Love, 522 U.S. 67 (1997), reaffirmed this principle and held that federal law setting the date for congressional elections (the Tuesday after the first Monday in November) preempted a Louisiana statute that established an open primary in October with a run-off on Congress’s specified election day only if the primary failed to produce a majority candidate.

While Siebold and Foster go specifically to Elections Clause preemption, the Court has also developed an approach to preemption under the Supremacy Clause. According to that approach, the Court seeks to preserve the “delicate balance” between the states and federal government, especially in those areas traditionally under state control. Thus under Supremacy Clause preemption the Court applies a “presumption against preemption” and holds that federal law preempts state law only when it is the “clear and manifest” purpose of Congress to do so. In short, the Court puts a thumb on the scale against preemption in its Supremacy Clause analysis.

The Court has not specifically said whether its approach to preemption under the Supremacy Clause applies also to preemption under the Elections Clause. If so, Congress would face a higher bar in preempting state law under the Elections Clause; if not, Congress could more easily preempt state law.

The parties dispute this, with Arizona arguing for the higher Supremacy Clause standard, and the plaintiffs-respondents arguing for a lower preemption standard. They also dispute whether under either standard Proposition 200 actually conflicts with the NVRA, and thus whether the NVRA preempts it.

[Summary of specific arguments omitted.]


This case tests the boundary between congressional authority and state authority in the special context of the Elections Clause. The Supreme Court has not ruled directly on this issue; in particular, it has not specifically set a standard for federal preemption of state law under this Clause. Thus this case is important because the Court’s ruling will (at least partially) fill this void and tell us something about the scope and extent of congressional authority, and therefore the scope and extent of state authority, under this Clause.

That, in turn, is important, because it will set the standard for federalism in relation to regulation of federal elections. If the Court borrows and applies the standard for preemption under the Supremacy Clause—with all its deference to state sovereignty, in the interest of maintaining the “delicate balance” between the states and federal government—the states could have more latitude to regulate elections, even affecting the composition of the federal government. (Various state efforts to strategically manipulate voting requirements in the 2012 elections in order to seek political advantage in federal elections stand as a stark and recent reminder of how state regulation could affect the federal government—exactly what the framers were concerned about.) But on the other hand if the Court applies a lower standard, one without deference to state sovereignty or considerations of federalism, the ruling could restrict the states in how they regulate elections, even restricting states from imposing additional proof-of-citizenship requirements (as in this case).

Still, the standard that the Court sets for preemption may be distinct from its ruling on preemption in this case. Whatever standard the Court adopts, its ruling in this case will tell us how much flexibility states have in adding to the NVRA requirements. If the Court holds that the NVRA does not preempt Proposition 200, this could invite states to impose all manner of additional requirements, potentially undercutting the congressional purpose of uniformity in voter registration in the NVRA and, again, potentially affecting the very composition of the federal government. But if the Court holds that the NVRA preempts Proposition 200, the ruling will restrict states in imposing additional requirements and will underscore national uniformity in voter registration.

In the end, whatever the Court rules, Congress could get the last word. That’s because Congress can always go back and rewrite its legislation in response to any preemption ruling from the Court. Here, Congress could rewrite the NVRA to more explicitly preempt state requirements like those in Proposition 200 (on the one hand), or to allow those requirements (on the other). In this way, Congress could effectively undo any decision in this case. The Court’s ruling will be important, to be sure, but it will not necessarily be the final decision on this issue.

Outside of these considerations, this case is also important because it comes to the Court just one month after the Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, testing the constitutionality of the preclearance provision in the Voting Rights Act. A bare majority of justices seemed skeptical in those arguments that preclearance and the related coverage formula were still necessary in 2013 to enforce the constitutional prohibitions against voting discrimination. In particular, a number of justices expressed concern about congressional infringement on state sovereignty and equality among the states. Between this case and Shelby County, we will learn quite a bit about where the Roberts Court stands on federalism and voting rights.

This case also comes just a year after Arizona v. U.S., 567 U.S. ___ (2012), another case testing Arizona’s authority, as against the federal government, to regulate non-citizens, when the regulation spills over and affects how Arizona treats U.S. citizens. Arizona v. U.S. involved the state’s efforts to clamp down on illegal immigration by authorizing its officers to check the immigration status of individuals that they detain and to regulate undocumented aliens in various ways. That case was a partial victory for Arizona and a partial victory for the United States. This case is yet a different test of Arizona’s authority, as against the federal government, to address illegal immigration.


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