Supreme Court Upholds American Indian Voting Rights

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 on June 17 that Arizona’s Proposition 200, a voter mail registration bill, is superseded by federal law.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision announced June 17, ruled 7-2 that Arizona's Proposition 200, which would have made it more difficult for people to register to vote by mail, is superseded by federal law.

"Today's decision is a victory for all Americans," says Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "The Court has reaffirmed the essential American right to register to vote for federal election without the burdens of state voter suppression measures." The proposition was passed by Arizona voters in 2004 and has been contested in the courts since 2006.

The Lawyers' Committee represented a coalition group comprised of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, the Hopi Tribe and other groups in the voting rights case, Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.

In 1924 Congress passed the American Indian Citizenship Act. Citizenship presumably carried with it the right to vote, but many states, including Arizona, refused to allow Native Americans to register. In 1928 Peter Porter, a Pima from the Gila River Reservation, filed suit against the state but lost in the Arizona Supreme Court. In 1948, a generation after American Indians were granted citizenship by the federal government, the Arizona Supreme Court reversed itself and granted suffrage to Native Americans. Arizona nonetheless has continued to restrict voting rights.

Under federal law, all states must "accept and use" the so-called Federal Form, a mail-in postcard-type application, to register to vote. Arizona argued that the "accept and use" clause meant only that the Federal Form must be one of the documents required to register to vote, as opposed to being taken in and of itself as a sufficient and complete application. The state imposed the further condition that prospective voters must present a license, passport, tribal card or other evidence of citizenship in order to register. An analogy with Arizona's position, wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in the majority opinion, would be a store that accepts credit cards, but also requires that a photo ID be presented.

Justice Scalia wrote, "The question here is whether the federal statutory requirement [a provision of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993] that States "accept and use" the Federal Form pre-empts Arizona's state law requirement that officials 'reject' the application of a prospective voter who submits a completed Federal Form unaccompanied by documentary evidence of citizenship."

The answer is essentially, "Yes."

Bob Kengle, an attorney and co-director of the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, says, "This ruling is a very important recognition by the Supreme Court of Congress' power to regulate voter registration in federal elections to make sure all citizens have a convenient way of registering to vote and are not needlessly encumbered" by additional requirements.

Justice Scalia noted that the ruling did not prevent states from “deny[ing] registration based on information in their possession establishing the applicant’s ineligibility" to register. But, says Kengle, the state may not use arbitrary or unreliable data to disqualify a prospective voter.

The Supreme Court said also that Arizona could change its voter registration requirements if it could get permission from the federal Election Assistance Commission to do so. Should the state be denied permission, it could take the matter back to the courts.