The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on voting rights is a mixed bag.
On June 17, the court struck down Arizona's "papers please" voting law. Unfortunately, it left the door wide open for similar attacks on the right to vote as long as states pursue a different pathway to adopt such measures.
The high court ruled that the Arizona law clashed with the National Voter Registration Act, a federal law designed to make registration and voting easier. This 1993 law requires states to "accept and use" a federal voter registration form that asks, among other things, "Are you a citizen of the United States?" Voters must check a box for yes or no and sign the form, swearing under penalty of perjury that they are citizens.
Arizona added an additional requirement, demanding that voters produce proof of citizenship, such as a birth certificate. According to the plaintiffs, tens of thousands of Arizonans had been denied the right to vote because they lacked the required documents.
In their ruling, the justices left a clear path for Arizona and other states to continue pursuing voter suppression tactics. As Justice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion describes, states can ask the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to revise the form, and if they don't get a decision they like, they can go to federal court and argue for the right to require proof of citizenship. So in the long run, this ruling might actually strengthen the rights of states to limit who can vote, as long as they follow proper procedure.
All of this comes amid increasing attacks on the right to vote. Florida and Ohio, for instance, have shortened periods for early voting.
Particularly common are laws that require photo IDs for voting. Touted as measures to curb vote fraud -- despite a complete lack of evidence that fraud is a significant problem -- these laws fall heaviest on the poor and elderly, who frequently lack the forms of ID the laws require and often cannot afford to obtain them. Many of these requirements are simply arbitrary. Some ban acceptance of student IDs, for example, while Wisconsin won't accept ID cards given to veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Such policies also hinder voters of color from exercising their fundamental rights. The evidence is overwhelming that these restrictive voting laws have the most severe effect on black and Latino voters, just like the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow South.
In years past, brave men and women died for the right to vote. We must not let their legacy be stolen.
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