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Expert Brief

The Effects of Requiring Documentary Proof of Citizenship

The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity’s vice chair, Kris Kobach, is one of the nation’s leading advocates for documentary proof of citizenship laws. They have been shown to keep thousands from the polls.

Published: July 19, 2017

The Pres­id­en­tial Advis­ory Commis­sion on Elec­tion Integ­rity has its first meet­ing this week. The White House has said that legis­la­tion may flow from its work. Very possibly, the panel could push to require Amer­ican citizens to produce a pass­port, birth certi­fic­ate, or natur­al­iz­a­tion papers in order to register to vote. (This is known as “docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship.”)

In fact, the panel’s vice chair and guid­ing force, Kansas Secret­ary of State Kris Kobach, is one of the nation’s lead­ing advoc­ates for such a rule. A recently released email revealed that he hopes to amend federal law to let states require people to show citizen­ship docu­ments to register to vote. Kobach sent the email to Pres­id­ent Trump’s trans­ition team the day after the elec­tion, prom­ising draft legis­la­tion to amend the National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act.

As Kansas Secret­ary of State, Kobach was the archi­tect of a push to require docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship to register to vote there. The state’s exper­i­ence, as the analyses collec­ted in this analysis reveal, has revealed that the require­ment blocks large numbers of eligible citizens from regis­ter­ing to vote. Even though the Kansas rule, first imple­men­ted in 2013, has been weakened by the courts, tens of thou­sands of attemp­ted regis­trants have been blocked at least tempor­ar­ily. Many of them were preven­ted from voting.

The bid to require citizen­ship docu­ments to register is driven by claims that noncit­izens are voting in large numbers. Pres­id­ent Trump, for example, has insisted that between three and five million illegal votes were cast in 2016. As has been widely repor­ted, there is no evid­ence to back up those claims. Invest­ig­a­tions have revealed only isol­ated cases of illegal voting. Further­more, there are protec­tions in place to keep noncit­izens off the voter rolls, includ­ing a require­ment that regis­trants attest to their citizen­ship under penalty of perjury, data­base checks, and the threat of crim­inal prosec­u­tion for voter fraud.

On the other hand, multiple sources of evid­ence show that a law requir­ing regis­trants to show citizen­ship docu­ments would block signi­fic­ant numbers of citizens from regis­ter­ing. In addi­tion to the exper­i­ence in Kansas, similar effects have been observed in the other state with a similar law, Arizona. Evid­ence as to how many Amer­ic­ans have the required docu­ments, and the obstacles to obtain­ing them, points to the same conclu­sion. In sum:

  • In Kansas, tens of thou­sands of attemp­ted regis­tra­tions have already been blocked — between eight and four­teen percent of new regis­trants — in the first years of the require­ment. Almost all of these regis­trants were eligible citizens.
  • Tens of thou­sands were preven­ted from regis­ter­ing in Arizona, as well, includ­ing an estim­ated 17,000 citizens in Mari­copa County alone.  
  • Surveys show that millions of Amer­ican citizens — between five and seven percent — don’t have the most common types of docu­ment used to prove citizen­ship: a pass­port or birth certi­fic­ate.
  • A look at the concrete real­ity of obtain­ing citizen­ship docu­ments shows how hard it can be for some. Low-income citizens may be completely preven­ted from comply­ing — and there­fore voting — by the costs and steps involved.

The follow­ing analysis collects all of this evid­ence, docu­ment­ing the seri­ous threat to Amer­ic­ans’ abil­ity to vote that docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship laws pose.  

*Research assist­ance provided by Tomas Lopez and Chris­topher Famighetti.

The Effects of Requir­ing Docu­ment­ary Proof of Citizen­ship