Wednesday, June 19, 2013
Arizona Voter Registration Case: No Pyrrhic Victory for the Feds
In response to Monday's ruling in Arizona v. InterTribal Council of Arizona, Inc., striking Arizona's requirement that voters show proof of citizenship above and beyond the oath of citizenship on the standard federal voter registration form, there's a debate about whether the case is a pyrrhic victory for the federal government. Our most recent post on the case, with links to earlier posts, is here.
On one side, Mary Lederman argued over at SCOTUSblog that the case, for all its talk of federal supremacy over how federal elections are held, probably curtails federal authority over who may vote in them. That's because Justice Scalia, writing for the Court, carefully reserved the power to determine who may vote in federal elections to the states. Lederman seized on Justice Scalia's line that the Elections Clause "empowers Congress to regulate how federal elections are held, but not who may vote in them" and argued that this principle puts in jeopardy current and possible future federal legislation requiring states to register certain persons to vote. For example, he argued that the ruling threatens the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, UOCAVA, which requires a state to register for federal electiosn any person who resides outside the United States but would otherwise be qualified to vote in that state; any congressional restriction on state felon disenfrachisement laws; and even federal law upheld under Oregon v. Mitchell. Rick Hasen made a similar point at The Daily Beast, followed up with a post on his own Election Law Blog.
On the other side, David Gans over at the Text and History blog at the Constitutional Accountability Center, argued that Lederman's argument "misses the enduring significance of Justice Scalia's sweeping reaffirmation that the Constitution gives Congress very broad powers to protect the right to vote in federal elections . . . ." Gans and others seized on Justice Scalia's repeated and very strong language affirming federal authority under the Elections Clause--its "paramount power," without a presumption against preemption--to set the rules of the "Times, Places, and Manner" of congressional elections.
So who's right?
Both, it turns out--with an important caveat. The ruling gives Congress broad authority under the Elections Clause to regulate the "Times, Places, and Manner" of congressional elections, including prescribing a federal form, using an oath on that form as evidence of citizenship, and requiring states to petition federal authorities (the EAC) to add a proof-of-citizenship requirement on that form (or to sue to get the EAC to add the requirement). That's the core holding of the case--that the NVRA, with the prescribed federal form, including the oath, is a valid regulation of the "Times, Places, and Manner" of congressional elections that preempts contrary state law.
But the NVRA and the federal form spill over into the state-controlled power to determine who gets to vote, because they regulate the manner of determining an important qualification for voters, citizenship. The Court said that to the extent that a federal law spills over and regulates voter qualification like this, the states must have an opportunity to petition federal authorities and ultimately to sue (under the Administrative Procedures Act) to enforce their own state voter eligibility requirements.
So even under the Elections Clause, the case stands for vast federal authority--authority to set the "Times, Places, and Manner" of congressional election in a way that absolutely preempts state law, and more: to set those standards even when they spill over into regulation of who gets to vote, so long as the states have an opportunity--under a very loose standard--to preserve their power to set voter qualifications through administrative petitioning and APA action. (Note that this administrative petitioning, by the Court's own reckoning, is informal and casual. Note further that APA review is deferential. Between the two, the principle puts the inertia behind federal regulation that spills over into regulation of voter qualification.)
While the Court articulated these rules in the case--that is, that the feds have the absolute power over how to vote, while the states have the power over who gets to vote--even perhaps more clearly than it has in the past, it's not obvious that this breaks any new ground. In particular, it's not obvious that it breaks any new ground reducing the power of the federal government or enhancing the powers of the states. Indeed, if anything, the core holding of the case only underscores the vast power of the federal government at the expense of the states. (While Justice Scalia's line dividing power between the feds and the states may eventually prove to be a "time bomb" (Hasen's phrase), the principal, driving holding of the case reaffirms federal authority.)
So here's the caveat: the Court said all this only with respect to the Elections Clause, but of course made no ruling on any other federal authority to regulate voter qualifications. Thus the Court left in place vast federal power under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and left untouched the constitutional rights to travel and to vote. Those authorities and rights, and others, might well support federal authority to enact the UOCAVA and maybe even to restrict certain state felon disenfrachisement laws. If so, Monday's ruling doesn't do anything to those actual and potential federal laws.
Moreoer, Monday's ruling does nothing to the federal laws upheld under Oregon v. Mitchell, or otherwise to undermine whatever holdings came out of that case. (Justice Scalia's footnote 8 does nothing to the vitality or legitimacy of Mitchell, say what you will about the footnote or about Mitchell itself.) Lederman argues that those laws might not withstand scrutiny under the Court's current approach to congressional enforcement power under the Reconstruction Amendments. But, if so, that's a function of City of Boerne, not Monday's ruling. Moreover, some or all of the laws upheld under Mitchell might well be upheld under different authorities. As we know, the Court itself split sharply on the sources of authority in that case, suggesting that those laws might enjoy support under other authorities, not subject to the Elections Clause constraint that states have the power to determine who gets to vote.
In short, Monday's ruling is a clear victory for federal authority under the Elections Clause, with a reservation of qualified state authority to determine who gets to vote in congressional elections even when Congress regulates the "Times, Places, and Manner" of congressional elections in a way that spills over into voter qualifications. (Why "qualified state authority"? Because the Court upheld a federal law that set a standard for voter eligibility, based on the oath on the federal form, so long as the states can petition the EAC and bring an action to court to supplement the oath if they can show that the oath is insufficient. This putting-the-burden-on-the-state when the federal government prescribes a way to determine eligibility is a thumb on the scale in favor of federal power. At the very least, it's an extremely unusual way to preserve and protect state power.) But the ruling does nothing to other constitutional powers that Congress might use to validly enact federal law, and to preempt state law, regarding voter qualifications.