In the run-up to the election, many may have missed a critically important court decision on voter registration handed down on October 26. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Gonzalez v. Arizona that the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) blocks the state of Arizona from implementing a proof-of-citizenship requirement for voter registration.
This is important for two reasons: First, it blocks the discriminatory requirements set by Arizona. (Many Americans don’t have the necessary documents to prove citizenship, and the mail-in registration process doesn’t really work very well with such requirements.) Second, it clarifies that the federal NVRA sets the terms for voter registration applications – the states can’t add more requirements. (For the legal mavens, the judicial panel relied heavily on the Elections Clause of the Constitution, Article I, Section 2.)
This was a huge win for the League of Women Voters. Not only had the LWV of Arizona and the LWVUS pursued this case for several years (this was the second time it went to the Ninth Circuit), but the appeals panel agreed with the points we raised in our amicus brief. As the major proponent for the NVRA when it passed Congress, and as an organization that registers thousands of voters every year, we had a special interest in the case. Many of our sister organizations also worked on Gonzalez, arguing that the Arizona requirements violated the Voting Rights Act, the Equal Protection Clause, and the constitutional bar on poll taxes, in addition to the NVRA.
We expect the state of Arizona to ask the entire Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to rehear the case en banc, and it likely will make its way eventually to the Supreme Court. We are hopeful that the fact that former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (who is from Arizona) was in the majority on the three-judge panel (she sat “by designation” as retired judges sometimes do) will help protect the decision. The dissenting judge raised technical legal issues largely unrelated to the NVRA and, at least from our perspective, didn’t understand the basics of the NVRA. (In fact, the Senate at first passed an amendment to the NVRA to allow states to require proof-of-citizenship --– but the amendment was explicitly rejected later in the legislative process. And the Election Assistance Commission, charged by Congress with designing the federal mail voter registration application form, also rejected such requirements.)
At least for now, the voter registration process is safe from attempts to add discriminatory new requirements. But, as always, we will need to remain vigilant at every level of government and every level of League.