By Cristina Silva, Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona will not be required to seek federal approval on election changes ranging from voter district overhauls to polling place relocations after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Tuesday hailed by Republican elected officials as a victory for state sovereignty.
The 5-4 ruling struck down a potent provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required Arizona and eight other states to run election policies by the Justice Department to guard against voting discrimination. The high court said the preapproval requirement was unconstitutional because it relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress. It directed Congress to create a new formula to determine which state or local governments should be covered.
Gov. Jan Brewer said the preapproval provision had improperly "trapped Arizona under the thumb of the federal government" and dismissed critics who insist the state needs federal oversight to protect against ongoing voter disenfranchisement.
"We were being punished by the Voting Rights Act for indiscretions, bad things that took place decades ago. And those haven't taken place any longer, we have grown. And so it was the right thing to do and I'm pleased," Brewer told reporters during a press conference Tuesday.
The state's top prosecutor described the preapproval process as irrational and humiliating and said Arizona never should have been included among the nine states, mainly in the South, singled out for racial discrimination. Arizona had assigned a team consisting of two lawyers and a paralegal to inform the Justice Department of its election changes.
"This is supposed to be a federation where the states and federal government are sovereign," said Attorney General Tom Horne. "It's not consistent with the notion that Arizona has to say 'mother, may I?' to the Federal Government every time it wants to change some mundane policy."
Secretary of State Ken Bennett said accusations that Arizona's election laws discriminate against minority voters are unfounded.
"We treat everybody the same," he said. "You show citizenship to register to vote, you show ID to cast your vote and everybody is treated the same."
Arizona has an ugly history of racial segregation and election barriers targeting black and Native American voters, and in recent years civil rights proponents have accused the state of trying to suppress Latino voter turnout in the face of a growing Hispanic population.
Last week, the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law that required proof of citizenship from people registering to vote in federal elections. A day later, Brewer signed a sweeping election bill that will make it harder for voters to obtain and return mail ballots and could limit Latino voter outreach, according to voter advocacy groups. Opponents had hoped it would be struck down during the Justice Department review, but the election bill no longer needs federal approval under Tuesday's court ruling.
"We are going to continue to see these barriers to voting," said Alessandra Soler, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona. "Discrimination at the polls exists today in Arizona and those realities cannot be dismissed as a relic of the past."
Oscar Tillman, president of the NAACP in Maricopa County, the state's most populous, said only elected officials who want to suppress minority turnout should welcome the Supreme Court ruling. He noted that there is only one black lawmaker in Arizona's 90-member Legislature despite the state's diverse population.
"Look at the racial makeup of things. We can say 'Yes, look, everything is OK and look at the White House,' but look at what it took to get him to the White House," said Tillman, referring to President Barack Obama's election as the first black president in 2008. "State after state there is voter suppression. So it's not a matter of the past when there are still issues."
The Justice Department aggressively vetoed many of Arizona's election policies in recent decades under the Voting Rights Act, including four statewide redistricting plans and various voting changes that could have curbed turnout among Hispanic and American Indian voters with limited English proficiency.
Without federal protection, minority groups will have to be more vigilant against voter suppression efforts, said Sam Wercinski of the Arizona Advocacy Network, an election watchdog group.
"Arizona voters are less protected. Their right to vote is at greater risk today because of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision," he said.
Clint Bolick, vice president for litigation for the conservative Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, said he does not expect any changes in voter turnout because of the ruling.
"It's important that nothing that was illegal yesterday is legal today," he said.
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