Supreme Court to Consider State Efforts to Circumvent National Voter Registration Act

March 15, 2013

by Jeremy Leaming

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA, also called the “motor voter” bill) was enacted to make it easier for people to register to vote. It promotes voter registration drives and requires states to permit people to register to vote via a simple postcard when they obtain or renew their drivers’ licenses or through the mail.

But some states have chosen to move in the opposition direction. For example, Florida in its overhaul of voting procedures not only attempted to limit early voting, it sought to make it onerous for groups like the League of Women Voters to conduct voter registration drives. Arizona enacted a law that would make it more difficult for people to register through the mail, by demanding more proof of citizenship.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already heard oral argument in a case challenging the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires certain states and towns – those with a clear history of past problems – to obtain “preclearance” of any changes they make to their voting procedures to ensure they do not discriminate against voters because of race. Several of the high court’s right-wing justices appeared ready to strike the preclearance provision in Section 5 of the law. If that were to happen it would deal a significant blow to one of the nation’s most powerful tools to combat racial discrimination in voting.

On Monday, the high court will hear oral argument in another case challenging the federal government’s constitutional power to protect the right to vote. In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., the justices will consider an opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that invalidated the Arizona law, saying the NRVA cannot be undermined by the states.

In a friend-of-the-court brief lodged with the Court, the League of Women Voters urges the justices to hold that the NVRA overrides states’ attempts to restrict voting.

“States should not be allowed to play politics with the voter registration process, the key entry point for political participation in our democracy,” the League’s President Barbara Klein said in a press releaseannouncing the group’s brief.

The Brennan Center and the Constitutional Accountability Center have also weighed in with an amicus brief urging the court to support the federal government’s constitutional authority to protect the right to vote.


Myrna Pérez, a Brennan Center senior counsel, said, “Arizona’s law would block eligible Americans from voting and deny them the opportunity to participate equally in our democracy. Congress passed the national voter registration standards to keep our elections free, fair and accessible to all. The lower court recognized that goal and rightfully struck down this law. By upholding the decision, the Supreme Court will ensure every eligible citizen can make their voice heard at the ballot box.”

Attacks on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act have been consistent for some time and the law has survived the scrutiny. We should know by this summer whether that law retains its integral provision. But states have also sought to undermine the NVRA by working to limit voter registration drives and make registration in general a more burdensome process. Victoria Bassetti, author of the book “Electoral Dysfunction,” argues it is rather befuddling to other countries why the U.S. takes steps to make voting an arduous process for some people.

“In the United States, we put the burden on the voter,” she wrote in a piece for The Washington Post. “And in doing so, we keep company with nations such as the Bahamas, Belize and Burundi.”

For more information on both cases and voting rights in general see our Voting Rights Resources Page