Matt York / Associated Press file, 2010

A sign points to a Tempe, Ariz., polling site.

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Editorial: Arizona is again on losing end of rights case

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 8A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 27, 2013 - 3:25 pm

Courts continue to strike down laws in Arizona for infringing on the rights of citizens. The latest came Monday, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 decision, ruled that Arizona may not require its residents to present proof of citizenship to vote in federal elections.

The National Voter Registration Act, approved by Congress in 1993, requires prospective voters to register to vote by filling out a federal form that merely asks them to swear under penalty of law that they are citizens. In addition to filling out the federal form, under a 2004 state ballot initiative, Arizona required its prospective voters to present proof of citizenship: a birth certificate, passport, naturalization papers or driver's license available only to people who have shown that they are in the country legally. That requirement, onerous for many eligible voters, violated federal law, the high court ruled.

The ruling was narrow, based entirely on Congress' power to preempt states on voting rules. Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the opinion, noted that states are still free to petition federal elections officials to reinstate the proof of citizenship requirement and, failing that, even to sue the government to allow the requirement.

Still, for now, a significant barrier to the ballot box has been removed in a state where a surging Latino population has begun to challenge the Republican Party's power structure. And it should send a strong signal to Arizona that its laws and practices are out of touch with the U.S. Constitution. Last year, the high court struck down much of Arizona's controversial immigration law, and last month, a federal judge ruled that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office illegally targeted Latinos in enforcing immigration laws.

In the current case, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the civil rights organization that filed the voting rights lawsuit, has found that Arizona denied voter registration to some 31,500 applicants in the two years after the proof of citizenship went into effect. In heavily Latino Maricopa County, where the city of Phoenix is located, voting declined 44 percent.

Supporters of the Arizona proof-of-citizenship law contend it was intended to combat illegal voting by noncitizens. But Thomas Saenz, lead counsel for MALDEF, says "there is not a shred of evidence" that illegal voting by noncitizens is a significant problem anywhere in the country.

Those most affected by the Arizona law were the elderly, young voters and the poor, who often had difficulty obtaining the documents required. The young don't drive or in many cases have easy access to their birth certificates. Many elderly have lost their documents, and the cost of replacements can be steep.

Cheered by the Arizona decision, voting rights advocates are now awaiting the high court's ruling in the even more-sweeping Shelby County v. Holder case. In that dispute, an Alabama county is challenging a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that requires jurisdictions in all or parts of 16 states, most of them in the Deep South, to obtain Justice Department clearance to make even minor changes in their election laws or procedures.

As the long lines at polling places, frequent allegations of voter intimidation and improper voter purges in recent elections have shown, in too many communities across our great democracy – Arizona being one obvious example – the right to vote remains dangerously fragile.

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