By Wendy Underhill
Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arizona requirement, enacted in 2004, that new voters show proof of citizenship at the time of registration. The ruling may impact other states as well: Alabama, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee also have laws on the books that require proof of citizenship, although the details vary.
This is a perennial source of legislation. This year, at least Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon (H 2364 and H 3428) South Carolina, Texas and Virginia considered bills. (None has been enacted yet.)
The Supreme Court did not weigh in on whether non-citizens should be on voter rolls; the law is clear on this point-- only citizens can vote. And it didn't address whether the proof of citizenship requirement is an undue burden on citizens as they become voters. Instead, the opinion "drew a distinction between Congress's broad power to set the manner of elections and its lack of power to set voter qualifications (such as residency requirements), which is an issue left to the states," according to Rick Hasen, an elections law expert. The ruling spells it all out.
In no way, though, does the ruling change the fact that states have an obvious interest in ensuring that only citizens get on the voter rolls. We already see other state approaches developing.
For instance, some states are beginning to compare their voter rolls to various data lists that may shed light on citizenship. (The U.S. has no comprehensive list of citizens.) Colorado and Florida each did this before the 2012 general election. In both cases, they compared their lists to the Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE), from the Department of Homeland Security. While these attempts may not have netted many noncitizens who were attempting to vote (and sparked controversy in Florida), they can be viewed as pilot efforts that can be improved on in the future.
As for legislation, at least two states have bills in the hopper this year that approach the citizenship question without following the Arizona model. In California, AB 301 would require that state courts transmit to state election authorities information about citizenship gained through the juror selection process. And, in Washington, SB 5380 would have required the state to determine citizenship through the driver's license process and provide that information to the secretary of state for voter registration purposes. The Washington bill did not pass.