Since the election (and reelection) of President Barack Obama, many GOP-controlled states have ramped up efforts to limit access to the polls by using various forms of voter suppression. With help from the Supreme Court, some are adding to their bag of tricks by making it significantly harder to even register to vote. Under the guise of protecting the voting process, some states are requiring residents to show proof-of-citizenship to exercise their rights.
That’s right. You have to show your papers when you register and when you vote.
While the United States does have a history of non-citizens voting, as well as some local jurisdictions allowing legally residing non-citizens to vote in municipal elections, generally voting has been understood to be a right of citizens. While on its face the idea of requiring a proof of citizenship doesn’t appear difficult, reports have shown that it can be especially challenging for low-income and senior citizens to obtain the appropriate documentation. Naturalized citizens would also have additional hurdles to overcome.
Arizona enacted a proof-of-citizenship registration requirement in 2004, which required election officials to reject any voter registration form that did not have satisfactory evidence of citizenship. “Satisfactory” evidence included a birth certificate or passport, among other things. In June of last year, the Supreme Court ruled that the state was free to require documentation from those who signed up with their state form, but they could not reject any registration via the federal registration form without approval of court or federal officials.
All states usually provide their own voter registration forms. As part of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the “Motor Voter Act,” a national voter registration form was developed that allowed people to register by mail. The “motor voter” nickname is because people can register to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles after they’ve been granted a drivers license or ID. The federal form is the one most often used in voter registration drives, as well as at any office where public services are available. Registration requires a copy of a valid photo ID or other document (i.e. utility bill) that shows the registrant’s address. It includes the specific requirements for each state (i.e. the deadline for registration or address for mailing), which comply with the uniformed requirements of the 1993 law. Registrants must also sign a statement under penalty of perjury that they are a U.S. citizen.
Forty-seven states accept registrations via this federal form.
Last year, Kansas’ proof-of-citizenship law went into effect. The state, which had enacted a voter ID law the previous year, now requires first time registrants to provide a birth certificate, passport or other proof of citizenship. As of January 2014, more than 20,000 registrations are on hold due to lack of documentation.
The problems in both states have to do with the federal voter registration form. Now Kansas and Arizona want it changed.
In August 2013, Kansas and Arizona sued the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) to force them to change the state specific requirements for their states to include the requirement of proof of citizenship. The EAC was created with the Help America Vote Act of 2002, tasking them with overseeing that states complied with federal efforts to increase voter participation. The law was passed during the first term of President George W. Bush.
The EAC denied the request. In its ruling this month, the commission said that proof-of-citizenship requirements would likely prevent eligible citizens from being able to register. They included the already established issues Kansas is having with the current backlog of registration forms as evidence. Furthermore, they said the additional documentation undermines the purpose of the Help America Vote Act by impeding and ultimately decreasing participation. It also pointed out that the small number of alleged voter registration fraud incidences that Arizona used as evidence (10 out of more than 2 million registrations) showed that the proof-of-citizenship requirement did not justify the risk of disenfranchising eligible voters.
The commission feels that the fact that registrants have to sign the form stating they are a U.S. citizen is enough. The Supreme Court confirmed this in the ruling in the Arizona case last June, stating that the federal form had to be accepted as sufficient. The commission says the states have other ways to verify citizenship at their disposal. For example, when they apply for the government-issued ID the states require for voting at the polls.
The attorney generals of both states have said they will continue to press their cases in court.
Until then they are considering other options. Kansas plans on using the state’s birth records scan to help with the backlog of voter registration forms lacking documentation. This of course will not help those who recently moved to the state, or women who have had a name change. Even by their own estimation, this will only reduce the backlog by about 7,700.
Arizona has decided to create a two tiered voting system. Arizona Attorney General Tom Horn feels that both the Supreme Court and EAC rulings only apply to voting in federal elections and not state or local elections. Therefore, those who provide the proof of citizenship will be allowed to vote in all elections. Those who use the federal forms and do not provide the required proof-of-citizenship will only be allowed to vote in federal elections. Meaning, they will not be able to vote for any office from the governor on down, as well as any state or local initiatives.
Initiatives like those requiring proof-of-citizenship to vote.
A hearing for Kansas’ and Arizona’s federal lawsuit has been scheduled for February 11, 2014. In the meantime, the ACLU has put Kansas on notice that it plans to file its own lawsuit against the state if they insist on requiring proof-of-citizenship for new voter registrations.