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Beyond Voter ID

As more states move to require voters to show photo ID before they can cast a ballot, some have proposed to restrict access to the polls even further…

  • Nelly Ward
  • Kristen Baker
April 13, 2009

As more and more states move to require voters to show photo ID before they can cast a ballot—a policy that we’ve repeatedly explained is unwise and unnecessary—a number of states have proposed to restrict access to the polls even further, by passing proof of citizenship requirements for voter registration.  

These dangerous proposals will suppress voting without meaningfully preventing fraud.  They should be rejected. 

Requirements that citizens present documentary proof of citizenship before being allowed to register threaten to keep a large number of voters from the polls.  Although there are many voters without easy access to photo ID, an even more significant portion of the voting population does not have a birth certificate, passport, or other form of citizenship documentation.  Even when voters do possess this documentation, it is often much less readily accessible—voters will have to dig up infrequently used proof of their citizenship in order to complete their registration, or jump through costly and time-consuming administrative hoops to replace what they don’t have.

As the Brennan Center has repeatedly demonstrated, not only do proof of citizenship requirements burden voters, they are essentially a solution in search of a problem: there is no significant problem of ineligible non-citizens attempting to intentionally defraud the electoral process.  Through interviews with election officials in Utah and Georgia, the Brennan Center has again confirmed that instances in which non-citizens register to vote or vote are extremely rare. 

In the few instances when a non-citizen does register to vote or votes, it is ordinarily the result of mistake or confusion, and not deliberate voter fraud.  For example, in Cache County, Utah, county clerk Jill Zollinger could only remember one instance during her eight years as county clerk in which a non-citizen registered to vote.  But the day after he registered, his father realized the mistake and came to the county clerk’s office to remove him from the rolls; the non-citizen’s registration was erased and he never cast, or attempted to cast, a ballot.  In DeKalb County, Georgia, assistant director of elections Maxine Daniels explained that, while there were a few instances in which non-citizens had registered to vote inadvertently by checking a box on a driver’s license application, as soon as they received their voter registration card in the mail and realized their mistake, they asked to be taken off the rolls.  In other words, non-citizens generally work actively to avoid mistaken registration.  For good reason:  registering would subject them to substantial fines, jail time  or deportation.

Despite the clear evidence that proof of citizenship bills are a costly solution in search of a problem, 12 state legislatures have introduced such requirements this year.  In Georgia a proof of citizenship bill has passed the state house and senate, and only awaits the governor’s signature before it becomes the second state (besides Arizona) to require proof of citizenship from its voters.  In Tennessee, a proof of citizenship bill has passed out of committee in the Senate, and may be considered by the full Senate and house this week. 

It’s very unfortunate that Georgia and Tennessee are evidently poised to follow Arizona’s example:  in the first 21 months that Arizona’s proof-of-citizenship law was in effect, it blocked the registrations of approximately 20,000 Arizonans.

As more state legislatures grant floor time to these proposals, it is crucial that they realize the enormous potential costs and minimal benefits of proof of citizenship requirements.  If other states adopt these policies, they will end up expending critical state resources enforcing laws that don’t prevent any substantial election fraud—but do freeze real citizens out of the voting process.