Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council: Asian American Voter Suppression Up Before the Supreme Court
In 2004, Arizona voters adopted Proposition 200, which requires voters to present documentary proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register to vote. Proposition 200 requires new voter registration applicants to present a U.S. birth certificate, passport, or naturalization certificate. (Other documentation such as driver’s license can be presented, provided that one of the above was already presented in obtaining a driver’s license.)
In Arizona, almost 40% of the Asian American population are naturalized citizens, compared to only 5% of the white population. This new proof-of-citizenship requirement places an unequal burden on naturalized citizens compared to native-born citizens.
While native-born citizens may simply mail copies of their U.S. birth certificates with their voter registration applications to register to vote, naturalized citizens must physically bring their original naturalization certificate, in person, to the Voter Registrar in Arizona. They cannot mail the certificate. Moreover, official copies of the US naturalization certificate cost $210. The alternative option – a US passport – is equally expensive, costing between $85 to $145.
As 40 % of Asian American voters in Arizona are naturalized citizens, this new law is would affect a much larger percentage of the Asian American voter population than the white population. Many elderly, limited English proficient and low income Asian Americans may have difficulty in presenting proper documentation.
Proposition 200 is not a common requirement. Forty-five other states and the District of Columbia do not require voters to present documentary proof of U.S. citizenship in order to register to vote. Only four other states require proof of citizenship, and only two of those four states are implementing the requirement. In Alabama, one of the states with a proof of citizenship requirement, implementation of the law continues to be delayed by the U.S. Department of Justice for potential violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Proponents claim that the requirement is needed to prevent non-citizens from voting in U.S. elections. However, there have been almost no incidents of non-citizens voting in U.S. elections or registering to vote. There are sufficient safeguard that prevent non-citizens form voting in U.S. elections. All voter registration forms have check-off boxes that affirm that the voter registration applicant is a citizen of the United States. In addition, the applicant must swear and sign an oath, under penalty of fines and imprisonment, that he or she is a citizen of the United States. The penalty for a non-citizen to register to vote is deportation.
The Legal Challenge: Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) filed a legal challenge to Proposition 200 when a voter attempted to register to vote using the federal voter registration form, pursuant to the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). All states must accept and process the federal voter registration form. The form does not require voters to provide documentary proof of US citizenship. The voter tried to register to vote and her registration was rejected. MALDEF filed suit.
MALDEF argued that the proof of citizenship requirement violated the NVRA. Congress enacted the NVRA to promote voter registration and to specifically eliminate state-imposed voting requirements that disproportionately harmed voter participation by racial minorities. Indeed, before the NVRA was passed, a Senate committee specifically rejected an amendment that would have allowed states to require documentary evidence of U.S. citizenship. Proposition 200 is at odds with both the text and legislative history of the NVRA.
On October 26, 2010, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit struck down the Arizona law, finding that it directly conflicts with the NVRA requirement that states accept and use the federal voter registration form. On April 17, 2012, the full Court granted a re-hearing and affirmed.
Impact on Asian Americans
Asian Americans are disproportionately affected by proof of citizenship requirements because such a high percentage are naturalized citizens. Of the approximately 194,475 Asian Americans living in Arizona, 69,817 are foreign-born naturalized citizens. Potentially 40% of the Asian American community may encounter the barriers of Proposition 200 when attempting to register to vote. By contrast, only about 5% of White Americans are foreign-born naturalized citizens, with few burdened by Proposition 200.
Many Asian Americans also prefer using the federal voter registration form because they are translated into Asian languages. In states that do not translate their state voter registration forms, voters may use the federal forms which are translated into Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Tagalog.
In addition, Proposition 200 also makes it difficult for community-based organizations to register new voters. Many groups run voter registration drives at local ethnic supermarkets and community events. Now, registration drives must be done with a photocopier to copy applicants’ citizenship papers.
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), founded in 1974, is a national organization that protects and promotes the civil rights of Asian Americans. By combining litigation, advocacy, education, and organizing, AALDEF works with Asian American communities across the country to secure human rights for all.
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