Voter registration is reserved as a right of the individual states. As such, it varies from state to state, and voter registration requirements are not the same in Louisiana as they are in Arizona or even Mississippi.
Dr. Peter Petrakis, a Southeastern Louisiana University political science professor, said historically voter registration has been left up to the states rather than the federal government.
“It’s not necessarily an unmitigated evil if you have strict voting requirements,” Petrakis said. “It’s a balancing act. Some states have gone one way and some states have gone the other.”
However, this variation may not continue if a recently decided Arizona case is to be the judge.
In Gonzalez vs. the State of Arizona, a federal appeals court struck down the portion of Arizona Proposition 200 requiring citizens registering to vote to show proof of citizenship, including a birth certificate, pertinent passport pages, naturalization documents, tribal birth certificates or a driver’s license. The court, which was composed of Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, chief judge Alex Kozinski and circuit judge Sandra S. Ikuta, did retain the portion of the proposition requiring a voter to display identification such as a driver’s license when voting at the polls.
The court opinion, written by Ikuta, stated that the proposition violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Ikuta and the other judges based their decision on the elections clause of the Constitution, which can be found in Article 1, Section 4:
“The times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the NVRA of 1993 gave the Federal Election Committee the power to make a federal mail-in voter registration form in an effort to simplify voter registration.
“[T]he thrust of the NVRA is to increase federal voter registration by streamlining the registration process,” Ikuta wrote in her opinion. “Along with increasing the opportunities for registration, the NVRA eases the burdens of completing registration forms.”
The mail-in form , now overseen by the Elections Assistance Commission, requires registrants to include traditional information such as name, address and birth date, but does not require the inclusion of either a driver’s license or social security number. If a registrant does not have neither a social security number nor a driver’s license, line six on the form may be left blank and a number will be assigned by the state.
The form also does not require proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate or driver’s license. Rather a valid photo identification, a current utility bill or paycheck is accepted to verify identity through name and address.
However, Ikuta noted in the opinion that states do have latitude in adopting their own mail-in forms and requirements, as long as they do not supersede those of the federal form.
“With regard to voting, states have wide latitude to attach qualifications to vote,” noted Petrakis. “Just having voter registration requirements that require you to establish that you have a driver’s license or that you live in a particular place, those are not especially constitutionally suspect.”
Louisiana’s voter registration form closely follows the federal form, but also requires registrants to include their driver’s license or at least the last four digits of their social security number if they have no driver’s license.
“Louisiana, for better or worse, we’ve had problems with fraud in our voting. So our voting, for example, was much stricter and much more clarified than Florida’s,” said Petrakis. “Louisiana would have been one that would have trended more towards trying to keep wrongful votes out.”
Petrakis said the NVRA was designed with the states’ rights tradition of voter registration in mind, but also in an attempt to simplify the voter registration process.
“One argument, and it’s not necessarily the only argument or the correct argument, but one argument is that it’s better open and let people vote, then after the fact if you find out that people voted incorrectly, then you can invalidate their votes.”
Petrakis said that although the federal form may indeed allow voters that are less than legal, he cannot imagine someone bringing a valid argument for allowing illegal immigrants to vote.
“Very few people would push for people who are not lawfully in the country to be legitimately able to vote. Maybe there are some people who are making those claims, but legally that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”