Share story

Arizona residents who registered to vote using forms provided by the federal government will not be allowed to vote in state and local elections next year, according to an opinion issued by the state’s attorney general, setting up the possibility of a two-track electoral system that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The state last week joined Kansas in planning for a two-tiered voting system, which could keep thousands of people from participating in state and local elections, including next year’s critical cycle, when top posts in both states will be on the ballot.

“If you require evidence of citizenship, it helps prevent people who are not citizens from voting, and I simply don’t see a problem with that,” said Tom Horne, the Arizona attorney general.

In a legal opinion presented to Secretary of State Ken Bennett, Horne said voters who registered using a federal registration form but failed to provide a document proving their citizenship are eligible to vote in federal elections but not in state and local elections. Horne, a Republican like Bennett, also held that voters who registered using the federal form won’t be eligible to sign petitions for candidates or ballot initiatives.

The federal registration form, created as part of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, better known as the Motor Voter law, requires voters to certify, under penalty of perjury, that they are citizens eligible to cast a ballot.

But in 2004, Arizona voters passed Proposition 200, a measure that required voters to go further than the federal rules and present proof of citizenship, such as a driver’s license, a photocopy of a birth certificate or a passport. State-printed voter-registration forms require proof of citizenship; federal forms do not.

A Native American tribe led a group of Arizona residents to sue to force the state to follow federal law, rather than the stricter state standard. And in June, the Supreme Court agreed that federal election law pre-empted the state’s rules.

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a 7-2 majority, said the Constitution gives Congress the power to alter regulations on who may vote.

But, Horne said last week, the court’s opinion applied only to federal elections, not state and local elections. Meanwhile, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the Motor Voter law didn’t preclude Arizona from requiring evidence of citizenship for state elections.

Courts have yet to rule on whether the dual-registration system is invalid based on the evidence-of-citizenship requirement.

The opinion means Arizona counties will have to print two ballots: one set that will allow voters who used the state form to register to vote in federal, state and local elections; and one that will allow voters who used the federal form to register to vote only in federal elections.

The two-tiered system threatens to derail an effort by Democrats and their allies to increase voter registration and turnout among Latinos and the poor, part of a push by the party to pick up local offices and seats in the states’ legislatures, where policies have been largely dictated by Republicans in recent years.

Voting-rights advocates slammed the ruling as a new set of hurdles to clear before legitimate voters can cast a ballot. In an editorial, The Arizona Republic blasted Horne, who is seeking re-election, and Bennett, who is running for governor, for playing politics.

“(T)wo of Arizona’s top elected officials are ready with a separate but unequal voter-registration scheme that attacks the nonexistent problem and undermines efforts to increase voter registration,” the paper’s editorial board wrote.

Material from The New York Times is included in this report.