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Court rejects part of Arizona voter law, Horne vows Supreme Court appeal

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WASHINGTON – A divided federal appeals court Tuesday overturned part of a voter-approved Arizona law that requires proof of citizenship for voter registration, saying it conflicts with federal law.

But the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld another part of Arizona’s Proposition 200 that requires voters to present identification at polling places.

Despite evidence of a “general history of discrimination … and the existence of racially polarized voting” in Arizona, the court said there is currently no evidence to suggest that the ID requirement results in “discrimination on the account of race.”

While opponents of the law declared victory, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said he planned to appeal the 9th Circuit’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We always expected the Supreme Court to have to decide this one,” Horne said in a prepared statement Tuesday. “The people of Arizona have a right to request that people registering to vote show some evidence they are citizens, and we fully expect the Supreme Court to uphold that.”

Proposition 200 was approved by 56 percent of Arizona voters in 2004 despite opposition from prominent members of both parties, including Republican Sen. John McCain and then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.

It was the first law of its kind to require voters to show proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Kansas and Georgia subsequently passed similar laws.

Under Arizona’s law, county recorders had to reject a voter registration from anyone who could not provide satisfactory evidence of citizenship, such as a driver’s license, birth certificate, passport or other document.

The law also required that, once registered, voters present identification when they show up at the polls.

The majority ruled flatly that federal law trumps state voting law under the Election Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Federal law requires only that applicants check a box affirming that they are of age and a citizen.

While it overturned the registration provision, the appeals court upheld the ID requirement for voting, deeming it does not violate either the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause or the 24th Amendment’s ban on poll taxes. The court also said proof that an ID requirement leads to discrimination is currently lacking.

“The record does include evidence of Arizona’s general history of discrimination against Latinos and the existence of racially polarized voting,” Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote for the majority.

But the case demonstrated “no evidence that Latinos’ ability or inability to obtain or possess identification for voting purposes … resulted in Latinos having less opportunity to participate in the political process,” Ikuta said.

In one of two partial dissents, Judge Harry Pregerson disagreed.

“When a Latino voter approaches the polling place but is stopped by a person perceived to be an authority figure checking for identification, there’s something intimidating about that experience,” Pregerson wrote.

Even though the court upheld the polling place provision, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund hailed the 8-2 decision as a win against requiring “unnecessary paperwork in order to register to vote.”

“Today’s ruling vindicates all the U.S. citizens who were improperly rejected for voter registration in Arizona,” said Nina Perales, who argued the case for MALDEF.

“Arizona may no longer flaunt federal law in voter registration, particularly in a manner that discriminates against newly naturalized citizens,” she said in a prepared statement.

Jon Greenbaum, another attorney on the case, called the ruling a “definite victory.”

“We are glad that the 9th Circuit found that Arizona’s proof of citizenship law violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993,” said Greenbaum, chief counsel at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It will allow groups that have done voter registration drives to do them again.”

He said the court’s decision allowing an ID requirement at polling places was expected and was not something the plaintiffs strongly argued before the appeals court.

“Once we got to this stage of the case, we weren’t really contesting that issue anymore,” said Greenbaum, adding that the focus at the circuit court level was to overturn the registration requirements.