Arizona voter citizen proof requirement overturned

SAN FRANCISCO Tue Oct 26, 2010 8:42pm EDT

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down an Arizona requirement that residents prove U.S. citizenship in order to register to vote but upheld a mandate that they present identification before casting their ballots.

Opponents of the 6-year-old law incorporating both provisions -- designed to prevent illegal immigrants from voting -- said the ruling would likely lead to thousands being turned away at next Tuesday's elections for lacking the required identification records.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' invalidation of requirements for proof of citizenship comes too late for any prospective new voters who were barred from registering before the deadline for the November 2 U.S. mid-term elections.

The state denied registration of an estimated 30,000 Arizonans who failed to prove their citizenship during the first four years of the law, said John Greenbaum, legal director for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups challenging the statute.

His organization hailed Tuesday's decision to strike down the proof of citizenship requirement as "a great victory for voting rights advocates."

A joint statement by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Secretary of State Ken Bennett, both Republicans, called the ruling "an outrage and a slap in the face to all Arizonans who care about the integrity of their elections."

Neither side said whether it would appeal further.

The 9th Circuit is slated to hear arguments next week in a legal challenge to a separate newly enacted Arizona law requiring state and local police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect is in the county illegally.

SPLIT DECISION

The Tuesday ruling stems from a ballot initiative, Proposition 200, Arizona voters passed in 2004 requiring individuals to produce proof of citizenship, such as a passport, to register to vote, and a picture ID, such as a driver's license, or two pieces of non-photo ID, in order to cast a ballot.

Proposition 200 opponents have argued the polling ID requirements discriminate against minorities and the poor, who might not have the money to obtain the necessary proof of identification.

The appeals court affirmed a lower-court ruling that upheld polling-place identification provisions, agreeing opponents failed to produce evidence supporting claims those requirements posed a discriminatory burden to Latinos.

But the 9th Circuit struck down the proof-of-citizenship mandate as being in conflict with a national voter registration law passed by Congress, which has paramount authority under the U.S. Constitution to regulate federal election procedures.

Just one other state, Georgia, has a citizenship documentation mandate similar enough to Arizona's law that it would be potentially vulnerable to a federal court challenge given the 9th Circuit decision, Greenbaum said.

Georgia checks its voter registration rolls against its motor vehicle database. Those whose vehicle records indicate they are not citizens are allowed to register to vote, but their ballot will be discounted unless they show proof of citizenship, he said. That system is still undergoing preliminary federal review before it can take full effect.

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was part of the three-judge panel that decided the Arizona appeal, joining the 9th Circuit as she has from time to time on select cases since leaving the high court. She concurred in the 2-1 majority in Tuesday's ruling.

Arizona has become the main gateway for human and drug smugglers entering the United States from neighboring Mexico, leading to passage of a number of recent statewide measures at stemming the flow of illegal immigration.

There are an estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States, mostly from Latin America.

The case in the 9th Circuit is Gonzalez v. State of Arizona, 08-17094.

(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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