The Supreme Court yesterday threw out an Arizona law that required anyone registering to vote to show proof of citizenship. The surprisingly lopsided 7-2 ruling held that the state’s law was pre-empted by the National Voter Registration Act, the 1993 federal law commonly known as Motor Voter, whereby qualified people applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses would also be registered to vote.
There are several reasons that this decision matters. The most basic is that it’s a boon for democracy. The point of Motor Voter was to make it easier for more eligible citizens to vote and participate in electoral politics. But in recent months, Republicans in dozens of states have proposed and enacted laws to make voting more onerous and complicated. Such laws tend to deter poor, young and minority citizens who, it turns out, tend to vote for Democrats. The court’s ruling quashes some of these efforts. If we’re lucky, it will also force Republicans to win elections by appealing to people of color rather than by trying to disenfranchise them. That’d be good for all of us.
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A second, related reason the court’s decision matters is that it’s a rebuke to states like Arizona that have taken an intimidating “show us your papers” approach to illegal immigration, especially when the approach is so sweeping that it erodes the franchise. The Arizona law was justified as a way to keep noncitizens from voting, even though there have been precious few documented cases of undocumented voters. The law simply used that pretext to keep tens of thousands of eligible and willing Arizonans from voting.
But the last and most overlooked reason that the Arizona decision is significant is that it reveals just how negative and reactive a notion of citizenship we have in America today. Take a look at the headlines. Citizenship is everywhere, but it is so often defined by what it’s not. In the immigration-reform debate, we talk about citizenship as the coveted thing that the undocumented do not have. We speak of pathways to citizenship but almost never discuss the destination of those pathways. We invoke citizenship as a form of exemption or immunity — against being targeted by CIA drones, say, or being tracked by NSA wiretaps or data-mining programs — but rarely do we consider what citizenship requires us to do affirmatively.
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Last week I spoke at a naturalization ceremony with 51 immigrants from 27 countries who were becoming U.S. citizens. They had to take a test (which most native-born Americans would have struggled to pass). They had to swear an oath, declaring not only that they renounced prior allegiances but also that they would serve and participate in American civic life when called upon to do so. Each of them bore a crisp certificate attesting to their new status.
It was beautiful. But it also made me think, What about the rest of us? We who had the dumb luck to be born in the U.S. too often take our citizenship for granted. The Arizona ruling reminds us — as does the NSA-Prism controversy, in its own way — that to be a citizen is not just to rail against encroachments on liberties. It is also to take on the responsibility of self-government. Our job is to ask questions; to push our representatives to do more than fly on autopilot; to force debates about policy; to make sure we include ever more people in those debates; and then, when the votes are counted, to make the policies work.
This is daily work, not just crisis work. If we fight for citizenship only when it’s being undermined, it’s sure to get undermined — just as if we exercise only when we’re getting sick, we are sure to get sick. It’s quite fitting, then, that the states can no longer force voters to show their papers. Documents can’t capture the true content of our citizenship. The proof is in the doing.