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Congress Must Retain Power to Protect Voters

The Supreme Court faces another critical voting rights case Monday with a challenge to a restrictive Arizona voter registration law. To honor the promise of our Constitution that all Americans have the right to vote without facing discrimination, the court must step up and ensure our elections remain free, fair, and accessible.

Published: March 18, 2013

Published in Roll Call.

The Supreme Court faces another crit­ical voting rights case Monday with a chal­lenge to a restrict­ive Arizona voter regis­tra­tion law just weeks after it considered the land­mark Voting Rights Act. Follow­ing an elec­tion marred by long lines and confu­sion at the polls, the court now has two oppor­tun­it­ies to protect voting rights for millions of citizens. To honor the prom­ise of our Consti­tu­tion that all Amer­ic­ans have the right to vote without facing discrim­in­a­tion, the court must step up and ensure our elec­tions remain free, fair, and access­ible for all.

Both the Voting Rights Act case (Shelby County v. Holder) and Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Coun­cil of Arizona come down to Congress’s power to regu­late elec­tions. Where the Shelby County case examined the continu­ing need for the Voting Rights Act, the coun­try’s most success­ful piece of civil rights legis­la­tion, Monday’s argu­ment will focus on whether Congress has the power to enact meas­ures that may over­ride state law to protect the right to vote in federal elec­tions. The answer is an unequi­vocal yes.

Arizona v. The Inter Tribal Coun­cil of Arizona involves a law passed in 2004 as state ballot initi­at­ive Propos­i­tion 200 that requires voters to submit proof of citizen­ship when regis­ter­ing to vote. But the National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act (also known as Motor Voter) provides a simple, uniform, federal regis­tra­tion form that states must “accept and use.” By reject­ing more than 30,000 federal forms because they did not provide addi­tional citizen­ship docu­ment­a­tion, Arizona viol­ated this federal law.

The consequences were clear: Arizon­a’s law led to the disen­fran­chise­ment of U.S. citizens. These voters did noth­ing wrong. They used the federal form, which does not require addi­tional docu­ment­a­tion, but they were not allowed to register.

Arizona is not alone. In 2011 and 2012, dozens of states passed meas­ures making it harder to vote. And that is precisely why Congress passed Motor Voter in the first place — to prevent states from passing laws that block eligible Amer­ic­ans from voting. The courts and the Depart­ment of Justice rejec­ted many of these laws. The Supreme Court must do the same, and uphold Congress’s power to protect voting rights.

Motor Voter has been extremely success­ful. It has improved voter regis­tra­tion access by help­ing over­come a confus­ing patch­work of state rules. This ensures every citizen has a simple way to register to vote.

The Consti­tu­tion provides Congress the clear author­ity to regu­late federal elec­tions. Under the Elec­tions Clause, in Section 4 of the Consti­tu­tion, Congress has the power to “make or alter” law to protect voting rights. Congress used this author­ity to enact regis­tra­tion proced­ures such as Motor Voter.

In the end, Arizon­a’s proof-of-citizen­ship require­ment is not neces­sary. The state claims it’s needed to protect elec­tion integ­rity, but Motor Voter already contains safe­guards to ensure only eligible U.S. citizens can register and vote. In fact, when Congress passed this provi­sion of the law, it debated and specific­ally rejec­ted an amend­ment allow­ing states to ask for proof of citizen­ship when regis­ter­ing.

Our coun­try was foun­ded on the prin­ciple that we all are created equal. Living up to that prom­ise means it is wrong to pass laws, like Arizon­a’s, that block some eligible Amer­ic­ans from voting and deny them the oppor­tun­ity to parti­cip­ate equally in our demo­cracy. Congress has taken steps to protect our funda­mental right to vote — so must the Supreme Court.