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Arizona voter-registration law to be weighed by panel

by Alia Beard Rau - Jun. 21, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit will hear arguments Tuesday afternoon surrounding Arizona's 2004 voter-approved requirement that residents show proof of citizenship when they register to vote.

A three-judge panel of the Appeals Court ruled in October that the National Voter Registration Act pre-empts Arizona's Proposition 200. Arizona appealed the ruling, and the court agreed to rehear the case "en banc" before an 11-judge panel of the court. The hearing is in Pasadena, Calif.

Among its provisions, the National Voter Registration Act creates a standard federal registration form that all states must accept. It requires applicants to sign a statement that they are citizens, but it does not require them to show any proof.

Prop. 200 requires applicants, regardless of whether they are submitting a federal voter-registration form or a state one, to provide a driver's license, passport, birth certificate, tribal identification or naturalization certification number.

In its October decision, the Appeals Court ruled that Arizona's requirement conflicts with the federal act, which requires states to make registration opportunities "widely available" and removes obstacles to voter registration.

At today's hearing, state Attorney General Tom Horne will get 30 minutes to argue for Prop. 200. The opposition's 30 minutes will be divided among the federal government, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona.

Horne said he'll explain to the justices why Arizona has the right to require additional proof of legal status.

"The state has two legitimate interests in being sure the only people who register to vote are citizens," Horne said. "The first is to protect the integrity of the process. The second is so legitimate voters feel confident the process is honest. If they feel their votes are diluted by improper voters, then their participation may go down."

He said the state does accept and use the federal form, and that the burdens of the additional requirement are minimal. Most people can easily produce required documents such as an Arizona driver's license or a naturalization certification, he said.

Joe Sparks' law firm will represent the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona during the hearing; his attorneys will have seven minutes to speak.

"What we say will be largely dependent upon what is said in the oral argument by the appellants and the lawyers arguing before us," Sparks said. "We have to be very flexible about what we're prepared to say."

Sparks said the justices need to understand how Prop. 200 impacts Native Americans in Arizona, calling it "pointedly discriminatory."

"When it comes to Indians, Prop. 200 is a direct assault on their ability to register and vote," he said. "Our clients are living on Indian reservations and many have no birth certificates, no passports. Many are miles from any county registrar and do not have a driver's license or a home address with a street number."

Arizona was the first state to require voters to show proof of citizenship, but Kansas and Georgia have followed suit in the past couple of years. An Appeals Court ruling would not impact the other states, but a Supreme Court ruling would.

Secretary of State Ken Bennett, who oversees the state's elections, has promised to defend Prop. 200 all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. That would be the state's last option if the en banc panel upholds its earlier ruling.

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