Rumble in the Desert

Civil rights groups are challenging Arizona's Prop 200, which endangers voting rights for citizens.

| Thu Jun. 1, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

Article created by The Century Foundation.

Without a lot of fanfare, a very important lawsuit was filed last week by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and other groups in Arizona. Finally, two years after the passage of the quite pernicious Prop 200, groups are finally taking serious action to combat it.

Basically an anti-immigrant measure, Prop 200 set out a bunch of restrictions on access to services for immigrants. However, with respect to voting rights, Prop 200 set up a situation blocking the right to vote for many citizens by requiring every person registering to vote to prove citizenship.

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As the Lawyer’s Committee describes it, Proposition 200 requires that that counties reject any voter registration application that does not include satisfactory proof of citizenship, such as a copy of the applicant’s birth certificate, passport, a driver’s license or non-operating identification license, but only if issued after October 1, 1996, a tribal identification card or naturalization documents. This even applies to voters who must re-register simply because they moved across county lines.

This measure is at least as damaging as many of the voter identification laws being passed and contemplated across the country. This stops someone from being part of the process before they’ve even gotten to square one. As I have repeatedly discussed with respect to ID laws, many voters are unlikely to have the required documentation and efforts to obtain the documentation will take time and money, therefore amounting to an unconstitutional poll tax.

Ironically, it has proven to be eligible voters who have been caught in the snare of this act. Last year in Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, more than 10,000 people trying to register were rejected for being unable to prove their citizenship. A spokeswoman for the recorder's office said most are probably U.S. citizens whose married names differ from the ones on their birth certificates or who have lost documentation. In Pima County, home to Tucson, 60 percent of those who tried to register initially could not. The elections chief said that all appeared to be U.S. citizens, but many had moved to Arizona recently and couldn't get their birth certificates or passports.

Moreover, Prop 200 is based on the idea that noncitizens are coming to the polling place and voting illegally. The premise is false. There is no evidence of any number of immigrants knowingly voting in the past in Arizona, and certainly it would seem unlikely when the last thing immigrants want to do in these times is draw official attention to themselves.

Finally, as the lawsuit persuasively argues, the measure also makes it virtually impossible for groups to conduct voter registration drives in Arizona. How many people go to the supermarket with their birth certificate?

The recent decision in Indiana upholding its draconian ID bill and the intolerance toward immigrants being displayed right now makes me worry about how the Arizona courts will respond. They upheld the Proposition in another context once before. But anyone who cares about the right to vote—for qualified, U.S. citizens—should hope that the law is struck down as the unconstitutional and anti-democratic measure it is.