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High court seems split on voter registration case

WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court justices seemed split yesterday on whether a federal law intended to streamline voter-registration procedures means states may not attach additional requirements, such as proof of citizenship.

The federal registration form that Congress says states must "accept and use" requires only that the applicant swear under oath that he or she is a citizen.

But Arizona voters in 2004 passed a requirement that applicants provide more proof.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled against that state adding requirements to the federal form.

The state-by-state battle over who is eligible to vote, what kind of identification or proof may be required, and even the hours of voting prompted a host of legal battles leading up to the 2012 elections. In general, Republicans proposed new restrictions, saying they were needed to combat voter fraud, while Democrats noted little fraud and such moves would harm minorities and the poor.

The oral arguments yesterday hardly reflected those incendiary partisan battles -- there was an extended discussion about whether "may require only" really means "shall require only." Still, a ruling for Arizona could open the door for states to add requirements to the federal registration form. The issue seemed to split the court on ideological lines.

Arizona Attorney General Thomas Horne told the court that the National Voter Registration Act required the development of the federal form that applicants may mail in to register to vote but that the law was not meant to limit what the states could require.

"It is the burden of the states to determine the eligibility of the voters," Horne said, adding that Congress did not specifically tell states not to demand proof of citizenship.

"Congressional silence should not disable states from taking sensible precautions to exclude noncitizens from voting," he said.

He immediately ran into trouble from liberal justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Ginsburg said Congress was not silent about citizenship. It had decided that a sworn statement subject to perjury charges was sufficient, she said.

"So it's not as though the federal form didn't relate to citizenship. It did," Ginsburg said.

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