WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices disagreed Monday over whether states can require would-be voters to prove they are U.S. citizens before using a federal registration system designed to make signing up easier.
Arizona and other states told the justices the precaution is needed to keep illegal immigrants and other noncitizens from voting. But some justices asked whether states have the right to force people to document their citizenship when Congress ordered the states to accept and use federal “motor voter” registration cards that only ask registrants to swear on paper that they are U.S. citizens.
“I have a real big disconnect with how you can be saying you’re accepting and using, when you’re not registering people when they use it the way the federal law permits them to,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said to Arizona Attorney General Thomas C. Horne.
Said Horne: “It is the burden of the states to determine the eligibility of the voters.”
This is the second voting eligibility issue the high court is tackling this session. Last month, several justices voiced deep skepticism about whether a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that has helped millions of minorities exercise their right to vote, especially in areas of the Deep South, was still needed.
The court will make decisions in both later this year.
In Monday’s case, the court is deciding the legality of Arizona’s requirement that prospective voters document their U.S. citizenship in order to use a registration form produced under the federal “motor voter” registration law. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that that 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which doesn’t require such documentation, trumps Arizona’s Proposition 200 passed in 2004.
Arizona appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.
The case focuses on Arizona, which has tangled frequently with the federal government over immigration issues involving the Mexican border. But it has broader implications because four other states — Alabama, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee — have similar requirements, and 12 other states are contemplating such legislation.