Home > Campaign for Stronger Democracy, Civil Rights, Electoral Reform & Voting Rights > SCOTUS NVRA decision is a victory for voters — for now

SCOTUS NVRA decision is a victory for voters — for now

June 17, 2013

voteThe Supreme Court has a number of high profile, potentially wide reaching cases in front of it this term, and…we’re still waiting for decisions on most of them. However, on the slate today was a decision in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona (ITCA) which challenged the citizenship verification that the state demanded to be included on voter registration forms provided under the Motor Voter law (aka the NVRA).

In an opinion written by an unlikely voting rights ally, Justice Antonin Scalia, the Court ruled 7-2 that the citizenship requirement should not be included on the voter registration forms used under the NVRA, overturning the restrictive provisions put in place by Arizona.

Brenda Wright of Demos said that the decision would preserve community voter registration drives, such as the ones hosted by League of Women Voters chapters across the country. The League also declared that state driven restrictions lost while “voters won.” Common Cause took part in the lawsuit along with a coalition of individuals and advocacy groups, with representation from MALDEF. Jenny Flanagan of Common Cause also hailed the decision as “a major victory for American voters.”

The decision this morning not only provides protection for voters amidst real, serious threats that impact real people, many of whom have already had their registration forms tangled up in the system. The case affirmed that all citizens have the right to vote, not anyone else.

While the decision provides some immediate relief against this type of restrictive voting law, some are saying that we should prepare for future challenges and be weary of the narrow ruling.

In their release, Project Vote said that the decision is a strong affirmation of the NVRA, but at the same time the door remains open for future litigation. The American Prospect also outlined the path that Arizona could take to get the provision back on registration forms:

Scalia’s opinion concludes by providing a road map for Arizona to challenge the regulations of the Election Assistance Commission: “Arizona may, however, request anew that the EAC include [a proof of citizenship] requirement among the Federal Form’s state-specific instructions, and may seek judicial review of the EAC’s decision under the Administrative Procedure Act.” It’s possible that there will be a similar attempt by Arizona to burden voters that ends up in federal court.

Professor Spencer Overton of the George Washington Law School and Demos says that Scalia’s opinion can ultimately lead to Arizona getting what it wants, and that, more importantly, states might have “exclusive control over voter qualifications”:

…Scalia’s explicit pronouncement that states have exclusive control over voter qualifications could jeopardize Congress’ power to protect voting rights. For example, today’s opinion could undermine efforts to encourage Congress to restore voting rights in federal elections to all former offenders nationwide who have paid their debt to society. Professor Marty Lederman has pointed out that today’s opinion could bring into question a federal law that requires a state to register a U.S. citizen who moved from the state and now lives abroad (e.g., many members of the military). Another thorny question left unresolved by the opinion is whether photo identification is itself a qualification the state can impose on federal elections (even in defiance of a federal statute to the contrary), or whether photo ID is simply evidence of a qualification like residency.

There’s more to come from the Supreme Court over the next couple of weeks. Still, there’s plenty to digest, even in this opinion. We’ll be waiting to see what comes next.