Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Arizona’s voter most recently enacted voter registration law to be unconstitutional. The law required that those registering to vote provide copies of several documents proving their citizenship, pointedly violating the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 which sought to encourage voting by providing a simple, federally processed form to be filed by a prospective voter.
NPR has provided a fairly detailed account of the case and the Court decision [available at: www.npr.org/2013/06/17/192790981/supreme-court-strikes-down-arizona-voting-rule?ft=3&f=1001&sc=nl&cc=msb-20130618], and there are several aspects of the case that deserve special attention.
First, the naturalized citizen who brought the case attempted several times to register to vote in Arizona, following the new Arizona law and providing the documents called for by the law. Yet, each time that he applied, he was told simply that the documents that he provided were not sufficient, that they did not meet the requirements defined by the law. He had provided his naturalization number, but the state did not have a mechanism for verifying those numbers with the Department of Homeland Security, and he had provided his driver’s license, but he had gotten the license while he was still a legal resident and had not yet become a citizen. In neither case did the state explain the reasons for the rejection of his application. The reasons became clear only after he had brought the lawsuit.
This kind of dead-end obstruction of voter registration is precisely what the National Voter Registration Act was designed to prevent. The Voting Rights Act of the mid-1960s should have prevented it, but voter suppression efforts keep periodically re-emerging, often with new tactics and technologies—though always with the same basic strategies and aims.
One might argue that the plaintiff in this case should have taken his case to the Federal Election Assistance Commission, which exists precisely for the purpose of investigating and resolving such issues with voter registration. But the Federal Election Assistance Commission exists currently in name only because the Republicans in Congress have refused to consider nominees to fill vacant positions on the Commission, and they have blocked budget allocations to maintain the funding of the Commission.
One might also think that this onerous voter-registration law was aimed primarily at Hispanics, but if that was the intention of its authors, that was not its effect. Although we have no idea how many Hispanics may have been discouraged from even attempting to register to vote, more than eighty percent of those whose voter-registration applications have been rejected have been non-Hispanic Whites (who, incidentally, constituted 57.8% of the state’s population in 2010). So, the law has managed to constrain new voter registration across all demographic groups—that is, it has succeeded in sustaining the voting blocks that existed at its passage largely as they then existed. In preventing voter-registration drives by asking for proofs of citizenship that people do not routinely carry in their wallets, the law reduced any volatility in the voter rolls to a very manageable minimum.
Since the days of Barry Goldwater, Arizona has been a solidly Red state, but it is becoming more Purple with each passing year. The state’s population, which is now almost entirely concentrated in the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas (80.8% in 2010), has been increasing dramatically. These rapidly expanding urban areas—especially because of the large numbers of retirees who continue to relocate to them–provide jobs in a whole host of service occupations that have been more recession-proof than jobs in construction. The Latino population has increased from 1,295,617 in 2000 to 1,895,149 in 2010, or from 25.3% to 29.6% of the state’s population. In addition in 2010, it was estimated that undocumented immigrants constituted the equivalent of 7.9% of Arizona’s census-counted population; so, the efforts to provide long-term undocumented residents with a path to citizenship may have a truly major political impact in Arizona. In addition, 4.6% of the state’s population is Native American, a group whose political activism has been increasing steadily, and African-Americans, who have historically had very negligible numbers in Arizona, now constitute 4.1% of the state’s population. State politicians with little sensitivity to the state’s increasing diversity will still point to a decisive White majority in the state, sometimes even citing the statistic become truism that three-quarters of the state’s population is White. Technically, this number is still accurate, but in 2010, only about two-thirds of that three-quarters were non-Hispanic Whites.
What all these numbers mean is that demographic trends are moving quite decisively against the very Conservative Republicans who have dominated the state’s politics for the last half-century, and in this context, it is easy to see the onerous voter-registration law as an attempt to neutralize the political impact of those demographic trends.
More broadly, the deluge of Far-Right legislation that has been passed during Jan Brewer tenure as governor can be seen, perhaps, as a demonstration of political power. But it can also be seen as a somewhat desperate attempt to build a legislative bulwark against an impending erosion of that political power.