Arizona’s Voter-Registration Law Is Declared Unconstitutional, Bringing into Focus Some Less Widely Recognized Aspects of Voter Suppression Efforts

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.

4 thoughts on “Arizona’s Voter-Registration Law Is Declared Unconstitutional, Bringing into Focus Some Less Widely Recognized Aspects of Voter Suppression Efforts

  1. This account of what was decided is as myopic as the characterization of Americans who are concerned about the integrity of the voting process as voter suppressors or people who are here illegally, of whatever actual nationality, as “undocumented.” (Did they lose their documents?) It is true that the left got one of the 5 items it was seeking redress on overturned. But as it happens there were four others before the court and the left lost on all of these, a good thing if you care about who votes and how many times they vote on election day. Moreover, the one item the left prevailed on was the least important and will make no difference as this article by someone who litigates these cases makes clear: http://pjmedia.com/jchristianadams/2013/06/17/left-loses-big-in-arizona-supreme-court-case/. May I suggest that you guys do what conservatives do and read, and consider, what the other side says before jumping to your knee-jerk, tar-and-feather- everyone-who-disagrees-with-you conclusions.

    • Although there are ambiguous aspects to the Supreme Court ruling on the Arizona bill, I have not read any analysis of the decision that characterizes it as largely a victory for the bill’s authors and defenders.

      On the broader issues, a large number of studies have demonstrated that the incidence of in-person voter fraud is so minimal as to be statistically almost non-existent. So I don’t feel that I am indulging in name calling by describing these “voter fraud” measures as “voter suppression” efforts.

      In 2012 in Ohio, there was a series of efforts by John Husted that seemed very clearly intended to suppress Democratic turnout, and the groups that supported those efforts which were ostensibly intended to reduce voter fraud went well beyond anything that Husted or the state GOP did, including buying billboard space in African-American communities that linked voter fraud to prison sentences. I’d say that the billboards were simply stating the law except that they did not appear in any largely Republican or largely White areas. And a number of the other measures initiated by Husted, such as eliminating Sunday voting in the week’s immediately ahead of the election, were never even framed or rationalized as attempts to reduce voter fraud.

      Those “voter suppression” efforts have been followed in this past year by efforts to suppress the turnout of college students. See my post: “SUPPRESS THE VOTE, 2013-2014 VERSIONS–ON CAMPUS.” The bill in Ohio had a parallel in a North Carolina bill, and both bills, like the Arizona law, were attempts to abrogate the federal Voter Registration Act in states where the electoral margins have recently been very narrow..

      I’ll add that, despite all of the intensive Right-wing demonization of ACORN before and after the 2008 election, I know of no person associated with ACORN who has been prosecuted for voter fraud. In fact, the funding for ACORN was congressionally blocked even as several independent investigations were clearing the group of the wrongdoing alleged in a very selectively edited Ring-wing video. In contrast, in 2012, the GOP itself severed ties with the firms run by Arizona political strategist Nathan Sproul. The GOP had paid his firms more than $3 million to register voters in six battleground states. But when state investigators in each of those states (which, by the way, have Republican governors and legislatures) uncovered evidence that Sproul’s employees were destroying or improperly filing Democratic registrations, the national GOP quickly and rather quietly decided to sever its ties to his firms.

      So I feel comfortable with my position that the real danger to the integrity of the vote has been voter suppression measures sponsored by Right-wing groups and not in-person voter fraud.

      Finally, your highlighting my use of “undocumented,” rather than “illegal,” seems an especially cheap shot since the sentence in which I use the word is hardly central to my post. Your point suggests that I am downplaying any issues with non-citizens participating in our elections. But I have suggested nothing of the kind.

    • Nice to see you here, Mr. Horowitz. Your comments are always interesting; I have found you to be perhaps the most intelligent commentator on the “right.”

      I followed your link, but your litigator makes no real case, just claims… and, as you often do, he includes the claim of knowing how the “left” thinks. True, I do try to know what the “right” thinks, but I do not presume to speak for the “right,” as you do (by virtue of your old leftist credentials), and this lawyer does, for the “left.” By doing this, you skew the positions of the other side and take over the discussion completely–making it more akin to “cunning old Fury” in Lewis Carroll’s “The Mouse’s Tale” in “Alice in Wonderland” than to real debate. That, of course, leaves little possibility for me to respond to substance, for you have already decided you know what we on the “left” believe and talk only to and about that.

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