Voter access trumps threat of fraud
In 2004, Arizona voters approved a measure demanding proof of citizenship from those who seek to register to vote in the state. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled the measure invalid.
The court looked to the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, also known as the motor voter law, which was supposed to streamline voter registration across the country. Among other things, it empowered a commission to develop a common registration form that all states have to "accept and use" to populate federal election rolls. The resulting form requires a signed affirmation of citizenship but no supporting documents. Under its 2004 law, though, Arizona rejected completed federal forms without documentation.
The motor voter law's "accept and use" mandate quite obviously conflicted with Arizona's requirements. To find differently would require ignoring the law's straightforward intent: to simplify registration. As Justice Antonin Scalia argued for the majority in a 7 to 2 court decision, if each state could reject federal forms that lack all sorts of extraneous information, why would Congress have bothered to order up a common form?
Since the Constitution gives Congress wide latitude to determine the "time, place and manner" of federal elections, motor voter preempted Arizona's law.
In separate dissents, Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Clarence Thomas argued that the Constitution empowers the states alone to set voter qualifications, even if they lack exclusive authority over other parts of the voting process. The federal government can't render useless the states' power over who can vote by making it impossible to enforce that power adequately.
In a holding that could have negative implications for other worthwhile federal election rules, the majority conceded that point. In this case, however, the court found that motor voter bows to the states' authority by allowing the federal form to include information "necessary to enable the appropriate state election official to assess the eligibility of the applicant." If Arizona doesn't like how the feds are applying that clause, the state can take them to court. Arizona, however, has not pressed its case through the channels available to accommodate its interests in regulating voter qualifications.
And Arizona shouldn't. The prospect of voter fraud should not be dismissed, but there is no evidence that it poses a practical problem. There is a far greater danger in limiting access to the ballot box, a sacrosanct right in America. Neither the states nor the federal government should be imposing new restrictions on the franchise. They should instead enact universal voter registration laws and other reforms to expand access to the vote.