WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday struck down an Arizona law requiring that people registering to vote in federal elections provide proof of U.S. citizenship.
In the latest round of an immigration debate pitting state against federal powers, the court in a 7-2 decision declared that Arizona's law went too far. Conservative and liberal justices agreed that, at least when it comes to voter registration, federal law prevails.
"When Congress legislates with respect to the times, places and manner of holding congressional elections, it necessarily displaces some element of a ... legal regime erected by the states," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority.
The decision is a blow to officials in Alabama, Kansas, Georgia and Texas, who had urged the Supreme Court to let Arizona's law stand.
The court's decision also comes about one year after a different lineup of justices struck down separate Arizona provisions meant to crack down on immigrants in the country illegally.
In the earlier case, the court's majority ruled that federal law pre-empted parts of an Arizona law requiring that immigrants carry documents showing proof of legal U.S. residency.
The staunchly conservative Scalia dissented from last year's Arizona decision, but on Monday he led a majority that included one fellow conservative, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., as well as the members of the court's liberal wing.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, sometimes known as the Motor Voter Act, states are required to "accept and use" a standard federal form when registering voters by mail or through motor vehicle departments. Passed over Republican opposition, the law was intended to make it easier for potential voters to register.
The federal form includes a simple attestation that one is a citizen and eligible to vote.
In 2004, though, Arizona voters approved Proposition 200, which required that registrants provide evidence of U.S. citizenship.
The proof could be a passport, a birth certificate or tribal identification, among other documents.
The state law mandated that Arizona officials reject the registration application of anyone who submitted the federal form but omitted the proof of citizenship.
State officials said the documentary proof was necessary to protect against fraudulent registrations provided by activist groups, including the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN.
Scalia said that Arizona may still have some other options open to it, including asking the federal Election Assistance Commission to alter the voter registration form so that it requires additional information. At the same time, Scalia acknowledged that the commission currently has no members and so is not in a position to do anything for the state.
In his dissent, Alito countered that "it is appropriate to presume that states retain" the authority to set voter registration requirements as long as Congress has not clearly specified otherwise.