Rejecting claims of discrimination, the U.S. Department of Justice gave the go-ahead Monday for Arizona to become the first state in the nation to require proof of citizenship to register to vote.
Joseph Rich, chief of the agency’s voting rights section, said his staff finds nothing in Proposition 200 that harms the rights of minorities to vote.
Rich also said the state can begin enforcing another initiative provision that mandates voters show identification before casting a ballot, a provision that already exists in some other states.
Monday’s decision will have an immediate impact. Some cities have elections scheduled in March. Early voting begins next week.
Jessica Funkhouser, special counsel to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, said Monday’s action automatically makes the initiative the law in Arizona. But Funkhouser said there will need to be some procedural changes that could take time, such as altering the voter registration forms and establishing policies for poll workers — changes that also have to be reviewed by the Department of Justice.
The action met with surprise from groups and individuals who had urged Rich to declare the voter-approved law invalid.
"We’re very shocked and surprised that the Department of Justice would arrive at these conclusions that Prop. 200 would not have a harmful and disproportional effect on Latinos and native Americans,’’ said Steven Reyes, attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Reyes said his organization and others raised serious concerns that the voting rights of minorities would be harmed, violating federal law.
House Minority Leader Phil Lopes, D-Tucson, said the Department of Justice ignored evidence the law will have a "chilling effect’’ on the ability of minorities to vote.
Rich did leave the door open to changing his mind before the deadline for Department of Justice action expires the middle of next month. But he said that will require showing Proposition 200 violates federal law — a showing Rich said has not yet been made.
Reyes said Monday’s decision technically leaves his organization with the right to take the case to federal court. But Reyes conceded federal judges have proven reticent about second-guessing the Department of Justice.
Karen Osborne, Maricopa County’s elections director, said Monday’s decision will force a series of changes, starting with the voter registration form itself.
But Osborne said there are a host of other issues to be ironed out — and quickly. Early voting begins Feb. 3 for 20 Valley municipalities and school districts.
She said procedures need to be in place to determine what forms of identification are acceptable to register and to cast a ballot.
She said there also needs to be a clear policy of exactly what a county official needs to do when someone tries to register but lacks the necessary proof.
"How do you turn someone down?’’ she asked.
Federal law makes it illegal for states to adopt any laws or procedures which "have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.’’
That law also allows the Department of Justice to veto changes it finds unacceptable made by states with a history of discrimination. That includes Arizona because the state had a literacy requirement to register to vote — a requirement subsequently overruled more than three decades ago by Congress.
The legal defense fund, in objections filed with the Department of Justice, said the proof of citizenship requirement will do away with registration drives, where volunteer party workers sign people up to vote.
They cited figures saying that these drives are one of the main methods of getting minorities registered.
They also argued that minorities are less likely to have various forms of identification required to register and vote than others.
Monday’s action is the latest in a series of setbacks for foes of the initiative.
A federal judge in Tucson refused to stop the state from enforcing provisions that require proof of legal presence in the United States to qualify for certain "public benefits.’’
That decision was upheld earlier this month by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.