Last April, as a national debate raged over whether Indiana’s voter ID law protects election integrity or disenfranchises low-income voters, a more sinister and potentially damaging voter-vetting proposal sat quietly in nine state legislatures, attracting little attention.
Laws that would require proof-of-citizenship in the form of a birth certificate, passport or naturalization papers in order to register to vote have been introduced in eight states: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
That number was pared down from nine in late May, when, under popular pressure, the Missouri legislature ended their sessions without calling their proof-of-citizenship referendum to a vote. The Missouri bill – HJR 48 – was the only such law that had the potential to go into effect prior to this November’s elections.
Birdell Owen, a Missouri resident who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and has no birth certificate, was among those who celebrated the victory.
“I should be able to participate in my democracy, she says, “even if Louisiana can’t get me a copy of my birth certificate. I’m glad Missouri politicians had the sense to protect my right to vote.”
Supporters of proof-of-citizenship bills say they aren’t trying to dissuade people like Owen from voting. Their targets, they claim, are the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
“When we have close elections in this country, the people have to have confidence that it was lawfully decided by honest, legitimate voters, not non-citizens and illegal people trying to participate in the process,” said Mark “Thor” Hearne, national election law counsel for President Bush’s 2004 campaign and a prominent conservative voting restriction advocate, on NPR in 2006.
Hearne was an avid supporter of the recent Missouri proposal, but so far, he and other supporters have been hard-pressed for evidence of an immigrant electoral take-over.
In 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft established the Ballot Access and Voting Integrity Initiative – a nationwide effort to find and prosecute fraudulent voters. To date, the effort has nabbed only 15 non-citizens, according to research compiled by Lori Minnite, a Columbia University political science professor and author of The Politics of Voter Fraud.
In 2004, Arizona voters approved Proposition 200 of the Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, making it the only state where voters must prove citizenship in order to cast a vote.
“A lot of people said this isn’t going to affect me,” says Nina Perales, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, referring to the Arizona law. “But it turned out to be a lot more restrictive than many voters thought it would be.”
Perales, who is currently suing Arizona on behalf of disenfranchised plaintiffs, says the state has rejected more than 37,000 applications since Proposition 200 went into effect. She says the state also left uncounted more than 4,000 cast provisional ballots because of polling place ID requirements.
“A lot of these people had ID, but it wasn’t good enough under Prop 200,” Perales says.
The largest segment of the population affected by the new law is women. A November 2006 report by the Opinion Research Center and compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that only 66 percent of women surveyed had ready access to proof of citizenship bearing their legal names.
According to Maggie Duncan, national spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters, broadening documentation requirements could effectively “turn thousands of women away from the polls.”
And women wouldn’t be alone. People of color, senior citizens, people with disabilities and those with comparatively low incomes were all over-represented among those lacking citizenship documentation in the NYU study. Overall, as many as 7 percent of U.S. citizens surveyed – or roughly 13 million individuals of voting age – reported having no immediate access to the documents.
In Missouri, the League of Women Voters was at the forefront of a movement to defeat the new voting restrictions, and was joined by a broad coalition that included the American Association of Retired People, labor organizations, disability advocates and others.
“We are working in states throughout the country where we are making sure voters are educated and keeping a close eye on legislation,” says Duncan. If something were to pop up, our state leagues are on the ground in every state working to make sure voters are protected, and working closely with officials in those states.”
“Missouri was the biggest threat, because of the political climate, in terms of something happening this year,” says Michael Slater, deputy director of Project Vote, a D.C.-based organization that promotes voting in low-income and minority communities. “But anywhere there is a Republican-controlled legislature, it could feasibly pass in 2009 in places like Florida, Missouri and other states.”
“Given the potential impact of new voters in the 2008 election and their historical impact in the past two elections,” says Slater, “it’s no surprise that we see partisans trying to curb the participation of new voters.”
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