Senate Eyes Proof Of Citizenship To Vote

On May 10, 2010, in News 2010, by Mark Norris

By Joe White,
May 10, 2010

If you want to register to vote, how much proof of citizenship do you need? That may vary by county if the state Senate approves a proposed measure tonight.

Since 1972, a citizen has had to check a box on a voter registration form saying he or she is a citizen of the U.S.

Senate Republican Leader Mark Norris wants local election clerks to be able to require suspicious applicants to actually provide more proof than just their word.

“They check the box, they swear under penalty of perjury that they are U.S. citizens, residents of the state of Tennessee, and so forth. But the local election officials asked us at that time, do we just stand silent and take their word for it?”

Opponents, such as Senate Jim Kyle of Memphis, say the bill would allow officials to impose more restrictions on Americans who have accents, or brown skin.

“We do not want to be in a situation where people are being profiled. Where some people are asked to submit proof, and other people are not being asked to submit proof.”

And so, Kyle wants to make the local election officials report who they reject, and why.

The Senate votes on the voter registrations changes tonight. If passed, then the House will vote on the new requirements.


The bill is SB 0194 Bunch/HB 0270 Watson.

The bill passed in the House last Wednesday, 92-1. As passed in the House, the bill doesn’t require any new proof of citizenship, but instead puts a warning on the application that misstating one’s eligibility is a felony.

Norris said he is resurrecting the provisions of a bill that failed last year.

“When citizens, we hope citizens, come in to register to vote, they check the box, they swear under penalty of perjury that they are U.S. citizens, residents of the state of Tennessee, and so forth.”

“But the local election officials asked us at that time do we just stand silent and take their word for it, or can we ask for some proof. And so what we had done in [Senate Bill] 1999, was to provide that the administrator of elections may reject an application for registration that is not accompanied by satisfactory evidence of United States citizenship. And they may ask – they don’t have to, but if they do – what kind of evidence would be satisfactory.”

That would be a driver’s license from a state that checks citizenship, a birth certificate or a passport, or paperwork from the federal government proving citizenship. A Bureau of Indian Affairs ID number would work.

But Kyle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, complained that the new requirement wouldn’t necessarily affect every applicant. So he proposes to make the county election official report who is rejected, and why. Kyle speculates how the new authority could be abused:

“I got … I’m getting these forms in for voter registration, I’m getting them by mail.
I’m getting them by mail. And I have decided I’m going to question every third one. Or I’m gonna question every one. Or I’m only gonna guestion the ones where the guy’s name is Jose’.”

Kyle calls his measure an anti-profiling amendment. Senator Bill Ketron, a Murfreesboro Republican, disagrees with him.

“I think it just has the reverse effect of that. Because when we start keeping records of gender, race, nationality, etc., I think that sets us up, at a later point in time, when we start recording those records, as to who we are profiling. So I think that it is more of a profiling amendment. That’s why I speak against it. I feel like either you are, or you aren’t.
If you have papers here, you’re here legally, then, it’s recorded. If not, you don’t register to vote.”

Kyle says he thinks the new provision will be used against persons who look different.

“A person walks to the counter, and says, ‘I desire to vote.’ They fill out the form, and the election coordinator believes that information. Believes they live where they say the live. Believes they were who they said they were. Said they want to participate in democracy, like they wanted to participate in democracy.”

“Now by the language that we have, the coordinator – not for everyone – I’d be much more comfortable with this bill if it said, everyone, because that takes the discretion away
– but for some.”

“Some have to prove it. ‘Welcome to our county, we want you to participate.’ ‘Welcome to our state. We don’t believe what you’re saying.’”

“Now. Perhaps they are doing good work by not believing some Swedish citizen who has come to Tennessee and wants to register to vote. But perhaps they are profiling citizens based upon their appearance. Perhaps they are profiling citizens based upon their accent
Perhaps they are profiling the citizen because they may not believe their state has accurate birth records.”

Senator Lowe Finney, Democrat from Jackson, argues for Kyle’s reporting provision:

“This amendment only requires them to report whoever they reject. The burden is on them to determine if someone is going to be rejected, and then tell us why they rejected that registration form.”

The Senate put off a vote on Kyle’s amendment, to make local administrators report their actions, and on the bill, until Monday, May 10.

Originally the provisions in Norris’ amendment were in SB 1999 Norris/HB 1838 Todd.

That bill failed in the Elections Subcommittee of the House State and Local Government Committee on April 15, 2009. The Senate didn’t act on the bill either, although it did get as far as the Senate floor.

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